James Desterhouse liked the idea of a quiet weekend far from the high-tech business of his computer job at Whatcom Community College.
"It was a taste of a lifestyle I want," he said, "a chance to get away from everything."
Debra Anderson of Bellingham was intrigued by the idea of a free trip where she could learn to hunt, although she figured her gender might stand in the way.
"At first I didn't think it would go through," she said. "The Army was a man's army, not a woman's army."
Dale Francisco Jr. heard about the trip on the radio and applied because he wanted to hunt and fish and just spend time with fellow veterans.
'The camaraderie was awesome," he said. "A lot of good stories."
They were three of five Whatcom County veterans chosen to enjoy a free weekend of hunting and fishing in Eastern Washington as a thank you for their service to the country. They and five veterans from Skagit County were beneficiaries of a "Hunting With Heroes" outing organized by McNett Corp., a Bellingham company that makes and sells outdoor gear.
"First and foremost it's a nice way for these guys to connect with one another," said Gerald Craft, marketing director at McNett. "The conversations I had with those guys were far different from the conversations they had with one another."
ORIGINS IN VANCOUVER
Several years ago, Travis Huisman, CEO at McNett, heard about a pest control company in Vancouver, Wash., that was treating veterans to hunting and fishing trips. Huisman liked the idea and McNett was a supporting sponsor for two years to send Vancouver-area veterans.
This year was the first time that McNett organized an outing for veterans from Whatcom and Skagit counties.
In mid-October, the veterans fished and hunted on a private game ranch near Goldendale in Klickitat County, in south-central Washington; stayed at a conference center with a lodge and cabins; and fished and hunted with professional guides from Blaze Outdoor Adventures.
To cover the $10,000 tab, McNett organized fundraising and chipped in $1,500 to match about $1,000 raised by McNett employees, Craft said.
For the veterans, it was all-expenses-paid trip, including transportation, meals, lodging, equipment and supplies.
"We were pampered," Francisco said. "It was awesome; weird but awesome."
To find veterans to go, McNett publicized the trip with help from local veterans, notably Mac McMaster, adjutant at American Legion Post 7 in Bellingham. Veterans could apply themselves or be nominated by someone else. A selection committee chose the winners by random draw.
Desterhouse, 32, served in the Army from 1999 to 2005. His stint included a year in Mosul, in northern Iraq, where he tended computers when they were feisty and handled patrol and guard duty when they weren't.
The commander at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1585 in Bellingham, Desterhouse was surprised to learn that someone had nominated him for the trip. "It was out of the blue," he said.
Anderson, 60, served with the U.S. Army from 1971 to 1975 as a clerk who handled paperwork on legal cases and occasionally escorted prisoners. She suffers from PTSD from her service time and has been retired since 2002.
Active at American Legion Post 7, Anderson hadn't fired a gun in years and looked forward to bringing some pheasant breast meat to a friend and keeping some tail feathers for herself.
Francisco, 53, lives in Bellingham and works at a warehouse in Blaine. He spent 20 years in the Navy as an engine mechanic and an air conditioning and refrigeration expert. He hunts and fishes, but isn't active at a local veterans organization, so he liked the idea of connecting with other service members.
"It's a whole different breed of people," he said.
The 10 Whatcom and Skagit veterans, along with volunteer helpers from McNett, left Bellingham Thursday evening, Oct. 10, in a rented van for the long drive to the camp near Goldendale. A motorcycle escort of veterans accompanied them out of town.
"We felt really honored," Anderson said.
Friday morning at the camp, after catching up on their sleep, they and about two-dozen veterans from the Vancouver area were given a refresher course on firearm safety and then practiced shooting their shotguns at clay pigeons. Friday evening featured a roasted-pig dinner and a poker tournament.
Throughout the weekend, the veterans could pick and choose among the hunting and fishing trips or just relax on their own. If they wanted or needed something, someone was there to help.
"I felt like I was spoiled," Desterhouse said.
On Saturday, veterans could rise early to fish for steelhead on the Klickitat River. Later, they could hunt for pheasant at the stocked game ranch nearby, assisted by Blaze guides and their bird dogs, or fly-fish for trout on the Little Klickitat River.
Desterhouse said veterans who kept to themselves began to relax and talk.
"It was recreational, it wasn't a therapy session, that's what opened people up," he said.
On Sunday, some veterans fished early for steelhead before the group traveled to Vancouver for dinner and a concert by country music star Darryl Worley. They spent the night in Vancouver before returning to Bellingham, a bittersweet trip for some.
"They didn't want to go," Desterhouse said. "They were with their people."
Once again, veterans on motorcycles accompanied the van from Bow into Bellingham. In town, children from Carl Cozier Elementary School stood outside waving flags and shouting "thank you."
"We were surprised," Anderson said. "It got us all choked up."
Craft said McNett plans to raise money so veterans can enjoy the trip next year.
"The guys were really touched by everything that we did," he said. "A lot of them didn't get 'welcome homes.'"
Whatcom County veterans interested in the Hunting With Heroes trip in 2014 should contact American Legion Post 7 at 360-734-3110.
Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or email@example.com.