CAMP RIPLEY -- Jim Vandenheuvel was back in camo last week, but this time it was orange hunter, not military. He shouldered a gun again, but a Savage .410 shotgun, not a Squad Automatic Weapon.
Vandenheuvel, who grew up in Pierz and now lives in Sartell, was one of 49 hunters who on Oct. 5-6 took part in the 14th annual Camp Ripley Disabled Veterans Hunt. The 24-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq was injured on Feb. 12, 2004, when an improvised explosive device blew up the vehicle he was riding in with two other soldiers. The blast killed the driver and left Vandenheuvel with several injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, a left leg that's four inches shorter than his right and loss of hearing in one ear.
But as he peered from his ground blind in Camp Ripley, the former military police officer wasn't bitter.
"It's a stupid war, but somebody's gotta fight it," said Vandenheuvel, who's rehabbing at the St. Cloud and Minneapolis veterans hospitals. "The physical injuries don't bother me. It wasn't my time. I won't give up."
Nor would he give up his pursuit of deer despite a first morning that brought nary a sign. It had rained hard that morning and deer bed down in those conditions. The vets filed into the mess hall for the noon meal and nobody had much to report. But the forecast was for clearing skies in the afternoon and Vandenheuvel was back on his stand at 1:30 p.m. He was assisted by Denny Houg, a Vietnam veteran who has helped with this hunt for 14 years and who built the stands used by hunters in wheelchairs.
"It's a group effort that makes this happen," Houg said. "Volunteers always get back tenfold."
The veterans took 12 deer over their two-day hunt, three deer shy of the record. The harvest included a 7-point, 152-pound buck taken by George Aleshire, Waite Park.
"He had never shot anything bigger than a spike buck," said Marty Skoglund, director of Camp Ripley's environmental office. "He's confined to a wheelchair and never gets into the field. He was thrilled and said he's having it mounted."
Skoglund added that on the night of Oct. 6 the deer were really on the move.
"It was just crazy," Skoglund said. "The last hour and a half they were everywhere. I saw three bucks and six does in one field. There was a decoy standing there but the hunter was gone. He had put in a day and a half and was done."
Vandenheuvel shot the last deer taken by any hunter during the veterans hunt. It was a 102-pound spike yearling buck.
The veterans hunt was immediately followed by the annual Camp Ripley youth archery hunt Oct. 7-8. The youths harvested 20 deer in Camp Ripley and two on Nature Conservancy land near Lake Alexander. Three bucks were taken by the youths, including a 10 pointer that weighed 196 pounds. It was shot by Bryan Callahan, Rush City, and was his first deer.
VINCE MEYER, outdoors editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
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