Shotgun blasts peppered the air four different mornings last week, when nearly 40 veterans participated in a waterfowl hunt on the northern edge of Anoka.
This was the first year for the Waterfowl for Warriors hunt in Anoka, organized by Scott Wahl and George Walker, both members of local law enforcement, along with Anoka City Councilmember Jeff Weaver.
The hunt, which took place on the mornings of Oct. 12, 13, 16 and 19, was exclusive to military veterans.
“The highlight for us was really having those World War II veterans out there hunting,” said Wahl.
“To hear their stories and to have them out there with us – those are the guys who went to hell and back.”
The hunt was held on 55-acre soy bean field, part of the Anoka Nature Preserve, and leased to a local farmer from the city of Anoka.
Walker and Wahl were out in the field at 4:30 a.m. on the days of the hunts, setting out the decoy spread.
Each day, as many has 10 hunters huddled in the long grass, calling and waiting for the birds to come in.
Walker served as a U.S. Marine from 1995 to 1999. He has been a member of the Anoka Police Department for the past 12 years, where he currently serves with as a canine officer.
“It’s great to be able to get together and do this with like-minded people,” Walker said of spending time in the field with fellow veterans. “It’s hard to understand what it’s like unless you’ve been there.”
Dave Conger is an avid hunter and a World War II veteran. A 50-year resident of Anoka who now lives in Oak Grove, Conger actively hunts waterfowl, turkey and deer. World War II veteran Charles Blesi also hunted with the Waterfowl for Warriors.
They joined several different generations of veterans on the hunts, including those who served in Vietnam, the Korean War as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To hear all of those guys share stories was really something,” said Wahl, a sergeant with the Minnesota State Patrol. “Warfare has changed since back in the days of WW II.”
The first day, Oct. 12, the crew took more than 30 geese in the rainy and overcast weather.
They might not have bagged as many birds on the following hunts, but that was hardly the point.
Orville Johnson said he was moping at home in Plymouth, feeling sorry for himself this hunting season.
“My best friend, my waterfowl hunting partner died four years ago,” he said.
Then his Legion newsletter arrived from Anoka Post 102 where Johnson is a member. Inside there was an invite for veterans to come join this special hunt.
The Waterfowl Warriors got Johnson, 82, back out in the field. He had five years of active duty in the Air Force, followed by 25 years in reserves.
The number of birds shot while he was in the field Wednesday was unimportant to Johnson.
“Quite awhile ago I stopped deciding how good a time I had by calculating the number of dead carcasses I brought home,” he said.
John Kriesel shot his first ducks Wednesday morning.
While he grew up deer hunting, this was his first waterfowl hunt.
Kriesel lost both his legs in an IED explosion in Iraq in 2008.
“When I got hurt, I didn’t think I would ever hunt again,” Kriesel said.
But as his sons started getting older (now ages 11 and 12) it was a pastime he wanted to share with them. The boys have just recently received their gun safety certification.
So Kriesel pushes himself to get out and hunt and says he has learned to be creative to make it work. He has also been pheasant hunting, but is working to expand his hunting experience.
On Oct. 16, volunteers with the hunt were happy to accommodate him. Several other veterans who participated over the four days had disabilities, from bad knees to using a wheelchair.
Many of the organizers and volunteers for Waterfowl for Warriors are police officers and firefighters.
“We should be thanking them too,” Kriesel said. “This is awesome, no one has to do this for us.”
Kriesel served one term as a legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives and is now the Anoka County Director of Veterans Services.
Mitch Oman of Fridley, along with father-son hunters Larry and Jason Rathbun of Columbia Heights, thought it was fun to be out hunting with other guys who had served in the military.
More than 20 volunteers helped with the hunts by securing the perimeter, taking vets out into the field, calling birds and retrieving birds and cooking up lunch.
Each hunt was followed by lunch in the woods in the Anoka Nature Preserve, where vets and volunteers got a chance to swap hunting stories.
The success of the inaugural event means Waterfowl for Warriors is sure to be back again next year.
“We’re looking forward to being part of Anoka’s fall traditions,” said Wahl.
And they’re not done yet. In January, Wahl said they are planning a wild game dinner at the Anoka American Legion for all the veterans and volunteers who participated. It will be a chance to bring all four groups of hunters together.
“Our goal was to get these guys, these vets, out into the field so it was definitely a success,” Wahl said.
Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]