Weeks before Veterans Day, Joe Thomas spent a day with former military members at a hunting preserve created specifically for wounded veterans.
USA TODAY Sports
OSWAYO, Pa. — On a windy afternoon in a remote part of northern Pennsylvania, Joe Thomas and Brett Rogers trudged through a patch of thorny bushes and dense trees, searching for the buck that Thomas had shot with a crossbow a few hours before.
With a group of people clad in camouflage and neon orange right behind them, the two men followed traces of blood until they found the deer’s body in some grass near the creek. They pulled the animal into a nearby clearing and flipped it on its side. Thomas gave Rogers a fist bump.
“Hell of a morning,” he said with a smile.
It’s been eight months since Thomas retired from the NFL after 11 seasons — and 10 Pro Bowl appearances — with the Cleveland Browns. And it’s been about five years since Rogers was medically retired from the Army, returning home from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, among other damage.
They met on an otherwise nondescript Thursday a few weeks before Veterans Day to hunt deer and pheasants at LEEK Hunting & Mountain Preserve, a volunteer-run retreat built specifically for wounded and handicapped veterans. Thomas joined a group of eight veterans from multiple military branches on the hunt. Rogers, 34, was his guide.
For Thomas, this “Heroes Hunt” hosted by off-road vehicle brand Polaris Ranger was an opportunity to merge two of his post-retirement passions: Hunting, and helping the military community.
“Being able to get all those guys back together in the outdoors, sleeping in bunks — it kind of gives them that sense of ‘team’ that they had when they were overseas,” Thomas said. “(It’s) an opportunity to sort of get out in the woods with each other and share a common experience, talk about the great things about being home, talk about the difficulties of adapting to life after the military and just get an opportunity to relax and let go a little bit.”
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Thomas has long been passionate about the veterans community; he regularly set aside season tickets for active-duty military members so they could attend Browns games with their families, and he traveled to the Middle East in 2010 to meet with troops. He’s also long been an avid hunter, which is one of the things that drew him to LEEK.
LEEK founder Ed Fisher was quick to admit that the preserve, which sits on more than 100 acres near the Pennsylvania-New York border, is not “a high-fenced operation.” He said he and his wife self-funded the organization for the first few years, and it’s still run entirely by volunteers, many of whom are veterans.
“It’s a place where warriors, injured and wounded, can come to heal,” said Fisher, who himself is a 27-year Army veteran. “I always tell people that while these men and women are healing in the best hospitals in the world — and bar none, we have the best. … But you also have to heal spiritually.”
Buoyed largely by support within the local community, Fisher said LEEK has been hosting roughly six hunts per season for 11 years now — reaching approximately 250 wounded veterans along the way. And it’s made a lasting impact on participants like Rogers, who was so moved by his hunting experiences that he has since moved his family to the area so he can serve as one of LEEK’s guides.
“When you get back, you don’t really feel like people cared that much about what you did over there and all the sacrifices that you made,” Rogers said. “When you come here, you just feel really appreciated for it. The people here make you feel special.”
On this particular Thursday, Rogers’ role as a guide took him to a hunting blind with Thomas, who arrived at LEEK a little after 5 a.m. The two men share a familiarity with Ohio — Rogers was born in Columbus and said he has Browns season-ticket holders in his family — and Thomas said they quickly found themselves “talking like we’ve been friends for 20 years.”
Within the hour, Thomas had seen his first Pennsylvania buck and shot it in the torso from about 60 yards away. Then it was time for lunch, and an afternoon pheasant hunt. Thomas answered questions from some of the veterans about the Browns’ turnaround, what it was like to play on the offensive line and the state of modern quarterback play. It might not seem like much, but for Thomas, it was a small way to say thank you.
“To me, vets have given the ultimate sacrifice with service, giving everything they have up to, and including, their life to their country,” Thomas said. “I think people that have the ability to give back and thank them should, because they deserve it.”
To learn more about LEEK Hunting & Mountain Preserve, visit www.leekpreserve.org
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.