I glanced over at Ronnie Snedegar, and we gave each other a look. We were watching his squirrel dogs Annie, Hammer and Rowdy barking on a tree at the bottom of a very steep hill. Ronnie and I had been here before and trudged up and down this not so gentle slope, and neither of us were looking forward to doing it again.
I looked around for our hunting partners for the day, military veterans Ronald Bennett, Sam Goins and Clint Smith. They didn't even hesitate and were already halfway down the hill; they were going to go get that squirrel. Ronnie and I laughed and started that way. Hill or no hill, we were having a big time with these guys and his dogs.
This whole adventure started when Ronnie told me he was going to take a couple of military veterans with an organization called The Fallen Outdoors on a squirrel dog hunt. Ronnie and I along with his squirrel dogs met Ronald — who serves as a pro staff member for the organization — Sam and Clint on a snowy day in Monroe County, West Virginia, and away we went.
In 2009, on top of a remote outpost in Afghanistan, The Fallen Outdoors was only a dream to three soldiers: Staff Sgt. John Bates, Spc. Eric Bakken and Spc. Eric Finniginamm. Sadly, after losing Finniginamm in the line of duty in 2009, Bakken decided to leave the Army in 2015 to pursue The Fallen Outdoors on a full-time basis. Having grown steadily from 2009, TFO serves more than 2000 members a year across our great nation and continues to grow and serve more every day.
Team Virginia was added to the organization in 2016 to help reach our great veterans and active duty members in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Led by Edward Williams, Team Virginia is run by a group of veteran and active duty volunteers known as pro staff members. Each pro staffer brings his or her knowledge of and love for their favorite outdoor activities to the table, making Team Virginia diverse and successful in the great outdoors.
The mission of TFO is to facilitate organized hunting and fishing adventures for service members — past and present, young and old, from all branches. These adventures allow a network to be built locally and nationally by giving veterans the opportunity to help other veterans by connecting in the great outdoors. Service members from every era face the challenge of coping with stressors arising from past and/or present events, and connecting with like-minded individuals surrounded by nature's beauty is a life-changing experience that allows us the opportunity to give our members an outlet. TFO builds a strong support system of new and old friends, and it's also a way of learning a new skill and finding a new passion in life!
"The Fallen Outdoors is a way for me to give back to veterans and active duty members," said Ducky Ligue, western regional lead for Team Virginia of The Fallen Outdoors. "I host trips to get men and women, able and disabled, into the great outdoors while also building camaraderie within The Fallen Outdoors community. I absolutely love what I do, and being outdoors helps me just as much as it helps our members.
"Our motto is 'Living Our Dreams Because They Gave Up Theirs,' and it's what we as pro staff for Team Virginia do every day while also not forgetting our fallen heroes."
Meanwhile, on that chilly day with our new friends Ronald, Sam and Clint, Ronnie's canine squirrel chasers were putting on quite a show. The sun came out, the squirrels seemed to be stirring a little, and before we got back to the truck, the dogs treed close to the road we were walking and the guys had a flurry of activity with more than a couple of shots fired.
Sam was carrying the little Henry lever-action ,410 shotgun I brought, and I think he got the barrel hot. Next thing I knew, we could hear him down the hill shouting something about "Hey! I'm out of shells!" When the smoke cleared, he and Clint had collected a couple of big fox squirrels, and they and the dogs seemed very happy.
We all loaded up after a good day in the outdoors and headed to our friend Avery Atkins' restaurant Pickaway Pickens, located in Pickaway, West Virginia. While we were all eating too much, Ronald filled me in a little more on TFO and the organization's needs.
"There is no doubt that we could use more pro staffers in western Virginia, and right now I don't think we have any in West Virginia," Ronald said. "If you are a veteran who would like to inquire about The Fallen Outdoors programs, and/or someone who would like to learn how to help out with their hunts and other events, please contact us."
Coming out of the restaurant fat and happy, I knew this would not be the last time I would tramp the woods with The Fallen Outdoors. Before Ronnie took off in his truck, I went and had a few words with Annie, Hammer and Rowdy about treeing squirrels at the bottom of those steep hills!
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.