I didn’t exactly smell great.
The guy sitting next to me in the plane headed to Sioux Falls from Minneapolis was doing his best to ignore the over-ripe odor I was emitting. Now, in my defense, I’d spent the last 72 hours traveling through three countries, two of which are best known stateside for deserts and a certain amount of … violent unpleasantness.
In that time, I’d spent 12 hours in an unairconditioned bunker near a flightline on an airbase waiting for a plane to show up and 16 more hours in the air surrounded by the same dudes with whom I’d spent the 12 hours in the hangar. None of us had seen a shower in at least 36 hours. I’d gone noseblind somewhere over the Mediterranean.
In the months prior to this particular trip, I had, in my capacity as an infantryman with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, been actively engaged in efforts to … uh … end the unpleasantness. I’d been unexpectedly tapped to be the first in my company to take two weeks of leave from the deployment. And until the moment I noticed my seatmate trying so hard to act like I didn’t smell vaguely of dirty feet, I hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that I’d be touching down in Sioux Falls in the middle of an afternoon during the third week of October.
My neighbor was, as it happened, wearing an orange hat. There was a lot of orange in the plane, actually. My mind, freed from the need to track flight times and other worries for awhile at least, drifted to thoughts of pheasants. I’d killed my first rooster at the age of 12 on a farm somewhere north of Kimball with a Remington 870 youth model 20 gauge I’d gotten for Christmas the year before. The poor bird flushed and flew over my head at about five yards, catching a full load of five shot. It was a little beat up.
My dad had taken me on that hunt, paying for access to lots and lots of birds. He was waiting in the airport for me when I walked out of the secure area and headed down the escalator. A few hours later, I was standing on the steps of the family home wearing orange, taking a photo with my dad and two brothers before we headed out of town to look for a few pheasants.
I don’t really remember if we killed any birds that day but it was a very good day all the same. That day and, really, all the days I’d spent in the field kept me going over the next nine months and the years that followed. There were dark days. But my hunting and fishing memories were a light I could always count on to brighten things up a bit.
And later when I came home, it was the time I was able to spend outdoors that, more than anything, helped me back into civilian life. Anyone who has spent time in combat can tell you that transition isn’t an easy one to make and it never really ends. It helps to have something to lean on, for me it’s hunting and fishing but everyone is different.
Sunday is Veterans Day so there’s no better time to reach out to a veteran, take them hunting, fishing or just out for coffee or lunch.