Down East bear hunt helps wounded veterans cope with combat stress

Posted Sept. 06, 2012, at 12:52 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 06, 2012, at 8:09 p.m.

DEBLOIS, Maine — If, as the U.S. Marine Corps claims, pain is weakness leaving the body, there is a whole lot of bodybuilding going on this week in the Washington County wilderness near Deblois.

Since Monday, five battle-weary veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been confronting the physical and psychological pain of their multiple combat tours with the help of a Down East bear hunting expedition subsidized through the Wounded Warriors Project.

Among them is Jesse Luera of Killeen, Texas, who on his first day as a U.S. Army line medic with an infantry company in Iraq saw his company commander — Luera’s first patient — die from combat wounds.

“My job as a line medic was to fix them so they could return to the fight,” he said Wednesday, 18 months out from being discharged for medical problems after a seven-year enlistment. “I had a lot of trouble getting back to normalcy. When I came back to Texas, nothing that used to give me pleasure meant anything to me anymore. I pretty much spent the first year by myself, pretty much never leaving the house. To say that I was numb doesn’t begin to describe it.”

To the amusement of the other four vets in his group, Luera hasn’t been able to wipe a grin off his face since Tuesday afternoon, when he was the first of the hunters to bag a black bear with what, in effect, is the civilian version of a tactical sniper’s rifle. He had never hunted before, not even mushrooms.

“It took a Texan from the concrete jungle to teach you guys how to hunt,” he said, teasing the others as he popped open the lid of a chest freezer to show off his half-frozen, 115-pound trophy. “He’s chillin’. Becoming a polar bear.”

The weeklong hunt is being hosted free of charge at the North Country Adventures camp in Deblois by owner Jim Morse and his partner, Cindy Stromeyer. Both are from Ohio and, as a registered Maine Guide, Morse spends two months each year prepping his camp and orchestrating black bear hunting expeditions into the 20,000 acres of Washington County wilderness that he leases.

With $1,100-a-week bookings down for this year’s monthlong hunting season, Morse offered the camp to the Wounded Warriors Project, which organized two groups of veterans and, in some cases, covered the costs of getting them to Down East Maine. The veterans’ only cost was a trip to Milbridge for a week’s worth of groceries.

The Wounded Warriors Project is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan define their “new normal.” According to its website ( woundedwarriorproject.org), the group believes that “the greatest casualty is being forgotten” and has set the goal of helping to create “the most successful generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.” In September 2010 the group had 6,750 registered alumni. By March 2012 that number had grown to 15,557.

In addition to Luera, this week’s Down East bear hunting group includes four veterans from Maine: Louis Doyon, 29, of Lewiston; Paul Woodman, 52, of Perry; Len Hanson, 37, of Crawford; and Bobby Mason, 22, of Albany Township, who came to the bear hunt with his father, Robert Mason Jr.

Having grown up in the Boston suburb of Lynn, Bobby Mason enlisted in the Marines in 2008, two weeks after graduating from high school. As a self-described “grunt,” he did two infantry tours in Afghanistan before being discharged in June 2012. He recently moved to Maine with his new Saint Bernard puppy, “because after all that combat stuff, I needed some relaxation.”

“I’ve taken him deer hunting since he was about 10,” his father said. “This has been good father-son bonding time.”

How good does it feel to have him back?

“You just can’t imagine.”

Doyon is the only bow hunter in the group. He’s also Luera’s best friend, having served in the same combat unit in Iraq, watching the medic’s back.

“My job was to keep Jesse alive,” Doyon says. “When someone shot at him, I made sure they didn’t shoot twice.”

Doyon said he, too, had difficulty morphing into civilian life after walking away from combat in 2005 and a three-year infantry stint.

“After I got out, I dealt with a lot of issues, as most combat veterans do,” Doyon said while waiting to take his razor-tipped arrows to his tree stand. “My two children kept me in line and kept me out of trouble. Since then I’ve learned a lot about how to help myself and others, and when I meet young vets I help them to understand the resources that are available to them. I try to play an active role in my community.”

Like others in the group, Doyon has nothing but high praise for the Wounded Warriors Project and for Morse’s and Stromeyer’s efforts to make the Down East bear hunt a memorable — and healing — experience.

“One thing I’ve learned is, rather than sitting in a room with a counselor talking about everything that’s wrong with your life, you need to get back into life,” Doyon said. “Experiences like this help to make that happen.”

Four of the five hunters spotted bears on Monday, their first day in the field, but only Luera got a kill shot the next day. With a one-bear limit, he was through hunting for the week. As cooking and barbecuing are among his few surviving post-war passions, Luera said he didn’t mind that his success on Tuesday meant he’d be staying back, cooking and doing dishes under a makeshift mess hall tent. While the other veterans were out hunting on Wednesday, Luera was putting his Texas-honed barbecue skills to work, prepping two racks of marinated pork ribs.

As Wednesday’s rain began dissipating by early afternoon, the hunters geared up to return to their stands. Having spent the morning baiting those areas with stale pastries and sugar-laced icing, Morse had a good feeling about the rest of the day.

“The third day is always the magic day,” Morse said. “The rain affects the hunters more than the bears. They’re the toughest animals around. Where we are hunting is their living room, and they’re used to rain. If this rain lets up, I expect it will be a good night.”

It did, but it wasn’t.

A check on Thursday showed all four hunters who took to the woods Wednesday afternoon and waited on their prey until just before sundown came back to the camp empty-handed. They will be out again Thursday and, if necessary, Friday before heading home.

Meanwhile, Luera will be cutting his bear into grillable portions, giving half to Morse and taking the rest home to Texas. Morse said a 115-pound bear will yield only about 30 pounds of meat as “most of a bear is bone and fat and hide.” Luera sees his trophy’s thick, black hide as a rug-in-progress, and he plans to share it and what he has learned about hunting this week with his 5-year-old son. Having recently been diagnosed with an often-fatal liver disease, he’s unsure how much time he’ll have with his boy.

“Hunting is something I can teach him and pass on to him,” he said.

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