Issue link: http://paper.grassandgrain.com/i/487456
By Lucas Shivers Sharing the healing power of the Kansas land- scape, Wounded Warriors United (WWU) offers ad- ventures for veterans and military servicemen to enjoy turkey, coyote, pheasant, quail, waterfowl and deer hunting as well as fishing, camping and hiking. "When warriors defend our freedom and liberty, they put on the uniform, strap on the boots and leave their families for many months," Tom Taviti- gian, WWU founder and combat-wounded veteran, said. "WWU is a way to help support those who come back wounded to release stress and be with others." WWU matches trained vol- unteers, called pro-staff, with combat-wounded war- riors to take in the outdoors and find respite, joy and beauty in nature. In 2014, WWU served 108 veterans with events and 'Hunts for Heroes' outings. After serving 27 years in the military, Manhattan resi- dent Tavitigian found con- nection, peace and belonging in the outdoors and native life. "I grew up in the sub- urbs of Detroit," Tavitigian said. "Other than sports, I wasn't outdoors much other than the week or so my fam- ily spend in a cabin to fish in northern Michigan. But, as I was stationed at different places and I was out on my own in my early 20s, I fell in love with the outdoors. I can't stop. It's a blessing." On a routine tour in Iraq in 2008, Tavitigian suffered an IED explosion. Tavitigian endured 17 surgeries in the past seven years, with anoth- er scheduled for April. "I think it'll be a routine thing to go in and fix things, but I'd rather deal with that than not be here," he said. "When I'm feeling pain-free, it feels great to go for long walks and hikes. When I'm not feeling great, I find a rock or log to sit and just be outside. It has a calming and soothing effect. It just really helps." In the years of recovery, Taviti- gian said he finds compan- ionship and a natural draw to nature. "I met a lot of guys in a lot of hospitals over the years as I was recovering," Tavitigian said. "Being out- side helped me so much; and it was so helpful to others." Once he resettled back in Kansas from Ft. Sill to be close to family, he started WWU in 2011. "For our first hunt, it was just me and another guy, a Marine, near Oskaloosa, out on a turkey hunt," he said. "It was a good deal, and it led to more." Over the years, WWU has thrived with the support of landowners and rural com- munities who opened their property and coordinated volunteers to organize hunts and outdoor adventures for veterans. "Kansas is home to some of the biggest hearts I've ever seen. Maybe it's because of the several mili- tary posts and training facili- ties located across the state," Tavitigian said. "The whole community really supports us. From landowners to the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, we've had overwhelming support. I'm telling you, it's amazing and touching." In one exam- ple from 2014, more than 20 volunteers from the Flint Hills Gobblers in Emporia hosted a turkey hunt for three warriors, one of which was a triple amputee who had never been turkey hunt- ing before. "With only one arm, he harvested a turkey with his bow," Tavitigian said. "Everyone was teared up." The positive social in- teractions and empowering traits of hunting restore con- fidence and promote hope for veterans. "It's a chance to go out and talk with guys. We really get to know them and realize what they go through," Tavitigian said. "We have the greatest volun- teers because they do it from their heart." Tavitigian said he tries to keep events to five or less to build strong rela- tionships. "Everyone ex- changes phone numbers and can call others when they need to," he said. "It's a con- nection point." Individual and corporate donations from around the country cover all the licens- ing, lodging and transporta- tion for events. In another re- cent hunt, a retired Chiefs football player organized a deer hunt at a lodge near Gentry, Mo. "It's amazing to see people care about us," he said. "It's not just physical, but so emotional as well." You just never know what a class field trip can lead to. For Kayleen Laflen, who owns a small farm south of Barnes, her grandson Gunner Turk's experience milking a goat while on a class trip resulted in her raising Nigerian Dwarf goats. Gunner returned home from the trip and announced he wanted a goat. His parents bought one and it came to live on Kayleen's farm. She now has a herd of sixteen nanny and young goats, and has welcomed ten kids this spring. Five of them came from one nanny, as she gave birth to quintuplets sometime in the night between March 13 and 14. Kayleen reports all the babies are healthy and energetic, although she is having to bottle-feed the two males. Above, another of her grandsons, Eli Bargdill, plays with the five kids, who are named Darling, Precious, Gracie, Billy and Bucky. Kayleen says the kids are very en- ergetic, and just like people, have exhibited a wonderful variety of personalities. It is estimated that quintu- plets in goats occur only once in about 10,000 births. Rare quint goats born near Barnes Wounded Warriors United promotes healing outdoors A very moving moment in a recent hunt was when a triple amputee veteran was able to harvest a turkey. Courtesy photos Camaraderie is key as volunteers help wounded veterans spend time in the out- doors.