Recreational rehabilitation programs have long been a favorite for helping disabled veterans acclimate after war, and the number of young and disabled vets returning who need those services is on the rise.
Two brothers — with nearly 60 years of military service between them — are trying to help with a unique retreat that's free for young vets. The program gets them out of their hospital beds for a few days to hunt in rural Pennsylvania.
As Marine and amputee Jake Dobberke positions his wheelchair at the end of a clearing, he and his guides send hen calls across the Pennsylvania countryside. The 26-year-old Dobberke takes part in the LEEK Hunting & Mountain Preserve's annual turkey hunt.
"Coming outdoors is kind of a realization that the outdoor world and the life that I used to live before I was injured continues to exist," says Dobberke, who lost his legs below the knee in Afghanistan last year.
Military veterans like Dobberke are the reason retired Army Col. Ed Fisher and his family started the adaptive hunting program in 2007.
"When we first started, it was about getting them out of the hospital, hunting and fishing, but it's become more than that now; it's a healing process," Fisher says.
The LEEK Preserve — an acronym for the names of the founders' family members Lew, Elaine, Ed and Kate — sits on 250-plus acres in a wooded valley just a couple of miles south of the New York border. When Fisher and his wife bought the land, he had recently retired from the Army after 27 years.
"I just felt like there was a hole in my chest. I was missing something," he says.
Fisher was troubled by seeing many young soldiers return from recent wars with serious injuries. So he and his brother Lew — who served three decades in the U.S. Coast Guard — invested their money to start a program to help veterans heal.
Growing up, Fisher was reminded of the cost of losing a limb. His father had lost his right leg at age 12 in a gunshot accident at home.
"I tell folks — you know, it's kind of funny — but I tell them that when I grew up I thought everybody's father or dad had a wooden leg," Fisher says. "You know it [made] no difference because it never stopped my father once."
For physically disabled vets, LEEK has special equipment, like lighter-weight guns and track wheelchairs meant for off-roading. It's one of those devices Dobberke uses to climb through the wooded hills.
In addition to losing his legs, Dobberke suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. He's been hospitalized for about six months and still has a long recovery road ahead.
"I've said time and time again, there's no medication that's out there that's available that's like smelling the salt air or seeing the countryside when you're outdoors and you're hunting," Dobberke says.
But it's less about the hunt, and more about the camaraderie. For Brandon Long, a 21-year-old Marine and double amputee, it's simply about spending time with guys who are in similar circumstances.
"Like in my situation, they know what I'm going through. So when I say my feet hurt, they're not looking at me like, 'What are you talking about?' They actually understand," Long says.
Every year during the turkey hunt, locals are invited to LEEK's annual fundraiser that helps keep the program free. Items like a $10 bill signed by the Fishers go for $220 and fruit pies for about $40.
Fisher wants to keep the program small to give members the attention they need.
"They go fight a war and they come back and they might be missing a limb or have some type of horrible injury. Well, that's the new Dad and Mom. And how do the kids and how do the family cope with that?" Fisher asks.
So far, the program has only invited male vets because there was little room for housing. But Fisher recently bought a new trailer, which will host LEEK's first female veteran when she goes hunting during black powder season in October.