November 30, 2020

Pheasant dynasty: Making a difference, one pheasant at a time

We were proud to welcome to Kossuth County three members of the Wounded Warrior Battalion from Camp Lejeune, N.C. during the annual Hunting with Heroes event Veteran’s Day weekend. MaxYield Cooperative was honored to provide the airfare to fly the Marines to the area and we give a heartfelt thanks to all of the organizers, who make this a special event for all involved.

Photos and Story By Mindy Baker, Editor Algona UDM

DSC_0070LAKOTA — It doesn’t sound like much, just a pheasant hunting trip with friends.

Walking through tall grass, listening to the handlers encouraging their dogs, listening for the cackle, the burring as a Ring-neck takes to the air. Experienced hunters calling out “Hen!” or “Rooster!” The bang of a shotgun, the smell of gunpowder.

It’s a scene played out over and over every weekend during pheasant season in Iowa.

“You can not buy family and friends and a morning like this,” said John Janes, a retired Marine and one of the integral parts of Lakota’s annual Hunting with Heros.

The event started in 2011 as Bernie Becker of Lakota, and his son, Jason Becker of Apex, N.C., wanted to do something to honor veterans in a special way. “We’ve got land, and we’ve got pheasants,” said Bernie. “A hunt seemed to make sense.”

Both Jason and Janes work for Caterpillar, and Janes put Jason in contact with the Wounded Warrior Battalion in Camp Lejeune, N.C. In 2011, four Marines were brought to Lakota for a weekend of hunting, ending with a banquet for more than 400 area veterans and sponsors of the event. Another four brought in 2012.

On Friday, Nov. 8, Corporal William Christianson, Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Moralez and First Lieutenant James Nash flew into the Des Moines International Airport, along with Jason, his wife, Jess; son, Jack; and Janes.

Waiting for them were Bob Lohrman and 19 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, just as the guard has for the past two hunts. They lined the hallway of the airport with flags and stood at attention as the men, all Purple Heart recipients, left the terminal. People waiting for their own friends and loved ones joined the guard, cheering and clapping as the men were welcomed to Iowa soil.

“It is an honor to be here to recognize these young men,” said Lohrman. “It’s neat to have them come here, have fun and enjoy Iowa. They deserve it.”

Waiting at the end of the hall was Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and members of the Marine Corps League Detachment in Des Moines.

“It means a lot to see these young men, these wounded young men, be appreciated for the service they have done for their country,” said Commandant Patrick J. Pins.

A celebration of the 238th anniversary of the Marine Corps was held in the Cloud Room at the airport. “It is an honor to be here, and for it to be Veterans’ Day weekend, it is especially appropriate,” said Reynolds. “As recipients of the Purple Heart, you have shown your dedication to all Americans, shown service above self.”

DSC_0081A surprise

Following the ceremony, the long ride to Kossuth County commenced. In Buffalo Center, two Kossuth County Sheriff deputies picked up the caravan of Marines and gave a lights-and-siren escort into Lakota, ending at Road Runners, where a steak dinner was on the menu. Even better, leaning up against the bar in Road Runners was a tall, lean young man with a scruffy beard.

When one of the four invited Marines was unable to attend the hunting trip, the Beckers had contacted Sergeant Jamie Lantgen, an alumni of the 2011 Hunting with Heroes. Now retired, Lantgen had been known in 2011 for his quiet, withdrawn manner.

“I was in rough shape back then,” said Lantgen. “I wasn’t in a good place in my head and I was hurting a lot.” Lantgen greeted everyone as they walked into the restaurant, shaking hands and passing out hugs, and engaging the new crop of hunters in conversations.

He now owns several acres, including a pond, in rural South Dakota, about four hours from Lakota. He came back not to be one of the wounded hunters, but with his bird dog, to be one of the guides.

He also spoke at the banquet, in front of more than 400 people. He had not spoken at the first banquet, and speaking this time was his condition for coming back to help guide. “This event, these people in Lakota, made a difference in my life,” said Lantgen, who is now a father. “It brought back to me that I wanted to come back, it brought back that I wanted to give this — small town, rural life — to my family. Thank you.”

Making a difference

The hunters bagged their limits both days, thanks to the generous support of the landowners who had refrained from hunting their land until after the Marines arrived and had their hunt.

Perhaps Lee Kiewiet of Buffalo Center sacrificed the most, as over the summer on his prairie plot, he had tracked a uniquely feathered pheasant with large splashes of white. Kiewiet is one of the dog handlers who help flush and retrieve birds for the Marines. On Saturday, Nov. 9, Jason Becker brought down the white pheasant.

“Not only that, it was my birthday and he shot my bird,” said Kiewiet.

Other good-natured ribbing occurred between the wire-haired dog owners and Labrador owners, over who shot the most ammunition and over who was the most accurate. For one brief moment, however, they were all reminded why they were there. After one of the dogs flushed a rooster, one of the handlers hollered “Shoot him!” and one of the Marines dropped to a defensive posture.

“All of a sudden I was back on patrol,” said Christianson. “Then I realized he meant the bird.” The bird escaped, but it was one of the last to escape as over the morning, the Marines relaxed and let go of their past.

That’s what Hunting with Heroes is about for Janes.

“The military fosters a darkness in its young men,” said Janes. “You need the darkness. Sympathy and mercy will get these men killed in war, but it stains you. Coming here lets them know they can be human again, that they can trust outsiders.

“We train for a job we don’t want to talk about, for the love of country, and some don’t come back. And some don’t heal completely. But then they come here, where Lakota is providing an extremely safe harbor, an opportunity for extremely dangerous, rough men to come back to life,” added Janes. “It’s about that four-letter word, love. Where these men come from, they don’t see love. They don’t see it at Camp Lejuene, but they see it here, they come to Lakota and it’s a rebirth.”

During the banquet, K&H gas cards were handed out to all area veterans in attendance, and the Heartwarmers Quilt Guild of Buffalo Center presented each of the Marines, including Lantgen, a handmade quilt. The Bishop Garrigan Danz Squad also provided each Marine with a tie fleece quilt, and Dr. Greg Williams, his wife, Gwen, and their children presented the Marines with thank you books made by the Estherville-Lincoln Central Community School elementary classes.

The men

DSC_0077Corporal William Christianson

Christianson has been in the Marine Corps for seven years, and both of his grandfathers were Marines. “I really like the structure, and I’m a server. I really take protect and serve very seriously,” said Christianson.

He has served in Japan, and two tours in Afghanistan, in multiple aspects. He’s worked in motor transport, as a machine gunner, marksman coach and a heavy weapons expert. While he states he loves his ‘toys,’ the way to get his eyes to light up is to ask about his 11-month-old daughter, Macenzie.

“I love her to death,” said Christianson. “She is my purpose in life. I’m lucky as hell.” Because of his injuries, he will be medically discharged from the Marines. He’s hoping to get a job doing quality control with Caterpillar that would allow him to continue working with heavy machinery.

“I don’t do well with crowds, but I’m comfortable here,” said Christianson. “I want to retire to the east coast, someplace very rural, where I can hunt and fish. “Being at the Wounded Warrior Battalion, it sucks to see people who are hurt worse that you are, but you see them still go out and doing stuff,” added Christianson. “I’m proud to be a Marine.”

 Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Moralez

Moralez has been with the United States Marine Corps for 21 years.

“I’d like to stay in the Marines,” said Moralez. “But I’ve been able to do everything I’ve aimed to do when I went in, and more.” It’s easier to name where Moralez hasn’t been — Antarctica and South Africa. “I wanted to travel, see different countries,” said Moralez. “I’ve had a lot of fun.”

He explained that the biggest change in the Marines has been technology. “When I started, the average administrative clerk would take the ball out of his typewriter and put it in his pocket when he went home,” said Moralez. “Now there is Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging. It has its benefits, and it has drawbacks.”

He has a 15-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old girl. His passion for the outdoors and hunting, fostered as he grew up in Washington state, has been passed on to all of his children. His eldest daughter plays football, and he smiles as he talks about his youngest daughter.

“Both girls have a definite tomboy streak. I can’t tell you how many times I catch my youngest scaring her mom with an armful of frogs.”

He’s glad to be done with deployments. “The last decade and a half it has been non-stop running, deployments,” said Moralez. “It’s hard to believe I’m already at 21 years. It’s gone so fast.”

Because of the non-stop running, he hasn’t hunted much in the last 20 years, which was why he signed up for Hunting with Heroes. “This is great, being around real people. What you see is what you get. I love Lakota. It’s a nice town, and its great that they foster and bring to us that relaxing aspect,” said Moralez.

He has a degree in Homeland Security and hopes to get a job in emergency management in either the county or state level in the Northwest or Midwest so he can still “get down in the dirt.” “I don’t want to go to the federal level and just be a key puncher,” said Moralez.

DSC_0122First Lieutenant James Nash

Nash can trace military service in his family back to 1750. “I joined the Marines because they have the highest standards, and I wanted to be around quality men,” said Nash.

He grew up in Oregon, and enjoys hunting and fishing. During the hunt, he collected tail feathers. He will use the feathers to tie flies.

He’s served four years, and has been stationed at the base in Quantico, Va.; Fort Knox, Ky.; Helmand, Afghanistan and Camp Lejuene, N.C.

“This is overwhelming, in the absolute best of ways,” said Nash. “A year ago I was in the hospital in Camp Leatherneck (Helmand Province), and it was the second time I had been there.”

As a tank platoon commander, Nash was in charge of a platoon of four tanks. During one of his deployments, his platoon came under attack. He spoke briefly at the banquet on Sunday, standing in front of more than 400 veterans, spouses and sponsors of the weekend hunt.

“One of my men was killed, and a couple of months later, his daughter was born,” said Nash. “One thing they always tell you in the Marines is that you can never go home again. A year ago I would have never thought I would be in such a comfortable, loving environment.

You have restored my faith that I can come home,” added Nash. “Keep doing what you are doing. It makes a difference.”



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