Nine Purple Heart veterans took to deer blinds on a rainy weekend at Legends Ranch. As the trophy bucks arrived one by one, the veterans welcomed their fellow hunters with pats on the back and handshakes for a job well done. But, for the veterans, the hunt was secondary to the camaraderie.
“I’m not sure I deserve to be here,” said Vietnam Veteran Douglas Martin, of PA. “There are so many other deserving veterans, but it’s an honor to represent them.” Such is the story for many of the veterans at Legends.
Since 2003, Legends Ranch has sponsored the Billy Ray Parnell Memorial Hunt - taking deserving Purple Heart veterans on the hunt of a lifetime. Conservation Force is the fiduciary partner, i.e. it is the public charity that funds the program. Dedicated donations are welcome.
The hunt - which runs Thursday through Sunday – gives the veterans a chance to enjoy the sport of hunting at a ranch these vets refer to as a “dream come true.” This dream was made as a tribute to Billy Ray Parnell, a high school friend to one of the ranch owners, Skipper Bettis. The two joined the army under the buddy system. Bettis was rejected due to a football injury, but Parnell was accepted. After being sent to Vietnam, he was killed less than 30 days later. “This hunt is a tribute to him and to all brave men and women who serve our country,” said Bettis.
The weekend was full of stories, laughter and a few tears. “This is camaraderie right here,” said Randall Fletcher, a Vietnam Veteran from VA. “It’s self-healing to come here, to people who know what you’re feeling. It goes beyond my expectations.” Fletcher, was invited to attend the hunt, but felt there were more deserving veterans than himself. Fletcher, who is battling cancer, wanted his neighbor, WWII Veteran, Clarence Robertson to attend in his place. “I don’t know how long I have to live, but I knew Clarence should be the one to hunt,” said Fletcher.
Legends had a surprise for Fletcher; traveling as Robertson’s companion, he too would be one of the lucky veterans chosen to hunt along with his friend. “I’m just enthused to be here,” said Robertson. “Randal gave up his hunt for me, and these good people gave us a chance to hunt together. I’m a veteran, but I’m a deer hunter this weekend,” said Robertson.
Jim McConnaughey, of TN, read about the memorial hunt in a magazine and wanted to sponsor his father, James McConnaughey, a WWII Veteran from MI. “My Dad and I have been hunting for 49 years, but I have a really hard time getting him out in the woods in his wheelchair. When I saw in the magazine that [Legends] could help get him in the woods, I knew I had to try and get him here.”
Each year veterans are chosen from a pool of applicants. A group from Legends reads each application and has the difficult task of narrowing it down to nine hunters. “All of them more than deserve to be here,” said Colby Bettis, ranch director. When asked about the criteria, Bettis said, “We want to help those who think they can’t hunt anymore due to physical limitations or other life challenges. We don’t want to turn anyone away,” he notes, “but we have to determine who we think would benefit the most from the hunt right now.” The other applications are saved and reconsidered each time.
Denny Mingus, a Vietnam Veteran of MI, was one of the hunters chosen to hunt last year, but due to illness was unable to attend. This year he was one of the lucky nine. Mingus knew about Legends from a TV show, but only dreamed of having the chance to hunt on its approximately five square miles. “My wife Vicky and I sat outside the main gate almost 10 years ago. I told her I’d love to hunt there, but knew that I never would.” In a wheel chair, and not able to hunt like he once used to, this weekend made more than one dream come true for Mingus and his wife.
“We’ll never forget this,” said Kenneth Muston, a WWII veteran, of MI. His son heard about the hunt, went online and gave his dad’s story. “The last time my dad shot an antlered buck was in 1964,” said Muston, Jr. This hunt was a surprise to him, and it’s more than we ever expected.”
The surprise and genuine excitement was felt by all the veterans. “I’ve been in a lot of places, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Harry Grover, WWII Veteran, of MI.
As the veterans shared their stories, meals, and companionship over the weekend. It was like “going home to family,” said Grover. Family was mentioned a lot and the wonderful people who make this event possible.
It was a “celebration,” noted Robertson. Bob Fales, a Vietnam Veteran of MI, said, “Coming here this weekend is coming home to the parade we didn’t get over 40 years ago.” By: Sherry Gallo, Pembroke, VA.