- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

CRESBARD, S.D. (AP) - A two-day Wounded Warrior Project event near Cresbard last month was the first time Aberdeen resident Mark Nelson hunted pheasants.

It was also the first time Mark saw his son, Brian, also from Aberdeen, stand on his own - both physically and in spirit - in years.

Brian is a Navy veteran who served aboard the USS Essex as an electrician’s mate. Shortly after being honorably discharged in 2005, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As a result, he lost his ability to walk and now uses a wheelchair.

“Brian is a vet who has withdrawn,” Mark told The American News (https://bit.ly/1PBCDss . “When he was growing up, he was a wild man and a handful to watch. He was fearless, but it was almost like he gave up when MS got ahold of him.”

Matt Wetenkamp, an Aberdeen native who now lives in Denver, is an outreach specialist with Wounded Warrior Project. He said he was told this summer that Brian was a fellow veteran who could use the support system offered by the Wounded Warrior Project.

“The message given to me was that it might be good to get him in touch with a few vets from the area,” Wetenkamp said. “It became important for me to get a group of guys here from the Dakotas who are in a good place and knew that if Brian needed anything in the future, that they’d be there for him.”

With the fall and pheasant season around the corner, Wetenkamp thought the upcoming Wounded Warrior Project pheasant hunt would provide a great opportunity for Brian to connect with fellow veterans.

Mark said the fact that he and his son had never hunted pheasants before didn’t stop them from committing to the hunt.

“When Matt contacted me about the hunt, I asked Brian, and he said it sounded like fun,” Mark said. “I’ve realized that Brian was very lucky to be part of the hunt, and you could just see him come out of his shell. There’s probably a lot more veterans who need something like this.”

Wetenkamp wanted to include other veterans on the hunt who could establish a rapport and connection with Brian. To that end, he asked Adam Long, a veteran from Sioux Falls, to participate in the hunt as part of Wounded Warrior Project’s voluntary peer-mentor program.

“The peer-mentor program is nothing clinical,” Wetenkamp said. “We identify vets in the area like Adam who have done a good job of healing, whether it’s physically or mentally, and we put them through training and teach them to be a shoulder to lean on, an everyday battle buddy for vets who might be struggling.”

Long has been a peer mentor for two years, but has been with Wounded Warrior Project for more than three years. He was also confined to a wheelchair until several surgeries allowed him to regain his ability to walk.

“We’ve learned through time the No. 1 medicine is not sitting at the (Veterans Affairs clinic or hospital) talking to the counselor,” Long said. “Although that’s needed, the biggest medicine is just being with our brothers, our sisters, too.”

Long said the actual pheasant hunt, like many other Wounded Warrior Project events, quickly became secondary to the process of healing that took place.

“If you create a Wounded Warrior Project event, that’s the initial attraction,” Long said. “Every time, though, the event becomes the smallest thing. It’s untouchable to come to something like this and being back in the realm of the camaraderie, the trust, the brotherhood.

“An event like this gives us the facility and the means to connect and build a relationship. When you make that connection, you’re bringing back life into someone that might otherwise give up, and there are so many that have given up.”

Wetenkamp said the peer-mentor program is symbolic of the Wounded Warrior Project’s logo that illustrates one warrior carrying another.

“The hope is the one being carried will be able to someday do the carrying,” he said. “That’s the whole point, and if we had a choice between shooting 36 birds and seeing Brian stand up, we’d gladly give all the birds back.”

Everyone involved was in agreement that the highlight of the hunt was seeing Brian stand, fire a shotgun and smile. An all-terrain motorized wheelchair from Action Trackchair was brought in to help him maneuver through the grassy fields and corn stubble as he hunted pheasants with his peers.

“It’s a wheelchair with tank treads on it,” Long said. “It’s like a Sherman tank, and they brought in the model that was able to stand Brian up while he was still rolling around.”

Mark said seeing the events unfold made for a special day.

“There was nothing Brian needed that they didn’t provide,” he said. “It wasn’t the hunting so much as just being together. These guys don’t notice the wheelchair or his limitations. They don’t judge. They’re his brothers, and he just feels that great love they give unconditionally.”

After the hunt, all of the participants resolved to establish a fundraiser in the hopes enough money could be raised to purchase an Action Trackchair for Brian. The motorized chair and necessary add-ons would cost roughly $20,000.

Mark said it’s a true story of giving thanks and looking forward instead of dwelling in the past.

“I hope we end up getting a wheelchair like this, because I see so many opportunities for Brian,” Mark said. “With that chair and with his brothers propping him up, I could almost see the old Brian coming back and wanting to do something with his life. I just can’t thank everyone involved enough. He has moved ahead more today than the last three or four years.”

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, https://www.aberdeennews.com

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