Freedom Hunt grows every year at Fort Custer

Brian Woodward used a wheelchair-accessible blind built by Boy Scouts to hunt deer at Fort Custer.

Oct. 24, 2013

When state wildlife officials expanded efforts a number of years ago to make deer hunting more available and accessible to hunters with disabilities, they realized early on that some of those hunters needed a little assistance from able-bodied helpers to pull it all together. Plus, the Nov. 15-30 time frame wouldn't work because many of those potential helpers would be busy hunting themselves.

So the Natural Resources Commission approved a hunt for mid- to late October, when more sportsmen and women might be available to assist.

Frank Koszegi, right, killed a deer at Fort Custer with the help of guide Russ Audette of Climax.Jonathan Edgerly, a natural resources specialist at Fort Custer Training Center, the state-operated National Guard facility near Battle Creek, thought he had the perfect venue for a holding an event for hunters with disabilities. The deer herd on the base needed thinning and -- because of the amenities, including barracks and mess hall -- Fort Custer would offer the perfect situation to hold a deer camp for guys who might not be able to go to camp in November. He enlisted partners from the conservation community and created the first "Freedom Hunt," which was attended by eight hunters.

Seven years later, the only thing that has changed is that a lot more hunters are involved. This year, Edgerly said, was a rousing success, with a record 47 hunters in on the Oct. 17-20 hunt.

"Everything went well," Edgerly said. "We got some, missed some, saw the big one that got away, and everyone's excited about next year. That's what we aim for; we're just looking to have a good deer-camp experience.

"We just try to provide a deer-camp atmosphere, where someone's disability is not an issue, where they can show up and enjoy deer camp without having to worry about additional hurdles."

Participants, who apply to be part of the hunt, must qualify under fairly strict criteria. Only those who have been issued a permit to hunt from a standing vehicle, have been deemed 100-percent disabled or unemployable by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or are legally blind or have a permit to use a laser-sighting device, are allowed.

Brian Woodward poses with his personal assistant Karlene Burns and his deer at the Freedom Hunt.The hunters are spread out over some 3,000 acres of the 7,500-acre fort. Each is assigned a volunteer guide, who assists the hunter in taking his position. In some cases the guide stays and sits with the hunter throughout the hunt. In others, the guide might sit in the vehicle or even go back to the mess hall and await a cell phone call when the hunter is ready to call it a day.

"They can hunt as much or as little as they want," Edgerly said. "Most guys stay over at least one night. Some guys are die-hards, got to get a deer, and get out there all day. Then there are guys who will go out for an hour."

Some 200 volunteers are involved the hunt, Edgerly said. "We have some people who come early and set up blinds or trim shooting lanes, some work in the kitchen, and some come after the hunt and take down blinds or clean up."

Volunteers come largely from conservation and sporting clubs. Tony Snyder, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, said his group has been in it since day one and takes a lot of pride in the hunt.

"The National Wild Turkey Federation has a program for sportsmen with disabilities -- Wheeling Sportsmen -- and this thing ties right into that," Snyder said. "This will probably be the biggest NWTF Wheeling Sportsmen's event this year. It would have been last year, but I didn't submit the paperwork.

"Our guys, who come from the Turkeyville Toms -- the Calhoun County chapter of NWTF -- have been steady. We initially started out just providing all the help for breakfast, but now our guys are staying around all day, helping retrieve deer and everything else."

Brian Woodward poses outside a wheelchair-accessible blind built by the Boy Scouts at Fort Custer.Most of the hunters use pop-up blinds that have been donated by equipment manufacturers, though some local Boy Scouts built two wheelchair-accessible blinds this past year. Brian Woodward, a 54-year-old quadriplegic who works in information technology for Ford Motor Company, used one of them.

"I got to break it in for them," said Woodward, who was an avid hunter when he broke his neck in an auto accident in 1983. "It's pretty cool."

Woodward uses a joystick to maneuver his shotgun -- which is mounted on an adaptive device and equipped with a camera that gives him a view of the sight picture -- and a straw, on which he inhales, to pull the trigger. Woodward killed a deer from the blind, the second he's taken in the seven year he's attended the Freedom Hunt.

Woodward wasn't the only wheelchair hunter to score this year. Mario Muscat, 54, killed an eight-point buck opening day. Muscat, who has used a wheelchair since a construction accident when he was 19 years old, has taken two deer in the six years he's attended the Freedom Hunt. He's a huge fan.

"This is the greatest -- lots of good guys," said Muscat said. "It's a deer camp -- good stories, good help, and there are a lot of guys who are disabled worse than me and they do a great job with them."

Claude Miller, a 66-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, killed a five-point buck that he called in with a grunt tube. Miller, who's been attending the Freedom Hunt for six years, said "this has been the greatest thing I've been to ever since I started coming. It's a bunch of guys who just click, though vets usually do. Good food, great camaraderie, good times."

Veteran Claude Miller of Harrison poses with his buck and his guide, Mike Gravier of Gregory.Edgerly said he was hoping to attract veterans when he started the Freedom Hunt -- the name was coined by a disabled vet on the steering committee, he said -- but never intended to limit it to them.

"We're geared toward veterans," Edgerly said. "But we're not excluding anyone. The past two years it's really taken off. The word's getting out and people are taking advantage."

The Department of Natural Resources, a sponsor of the Freedom Hunt, is expanding its outreach to veterans and others with disabilities, too.

Operation Freedom Outdoors is a partnership the DNR has formed with a number of conservation organizations and groups that advocate for those with disabilities to create top-notch outdoor recreation opportunities in Washtenaw and Jackson counties by connecting Camp Liberty -- a recreation facility for veterans with disabilities -- with the adjacent Sharonville State Game Area.

"Veterans and others with disabilities deserve the same opportunities as the rest of us to enjoy our natural resources," said DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason. "Providing that opportunity is really what Pure Michigan is all about."

For more information on Camp Liberty, visit www.camp-liberty.org.

For more information on the Freedom Hunt, visit www.fortcusterhunt.org.