Matt Houston stepped deliberately through the dark woods, trying not to fall in the rocky terrain. He paused to wipe sweat from his forehead and adjusted the rifle slung across his chest. He checked on his seven-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, who tripped repeatedly on stones carpeted by dead leaves. He lifted binoculars to scan for signs of life.
Finding none, he moved on.
In the cool air before dawn, Houston, 30, of Kittanning, Pa., was sweating heavily when they reached a metal ladder leading to a tree platform 15 feet up where he and Cheyenne would sit for the next five hours.
"Cheyenne, turn around,'' he said. "Daddy needs to dry off his leg.''
The girl obeyed and Houston slid down his pants to reveal the prosthetic, a replacement for the leg he lost in Iraq. As he dried and readjusted the titanium limb, other wounded veterans tread out of sight and earshot through the forest. They were hunting deer outside Altoona, Pa., a trip organized by the Wounded Heroes Hunting Camp program.
The nonprofit group aims to help disabled vets heal emotionally by providing the camaraderie of other vets wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Jeremy Harbaugh, president and co-founder of the Boonsboro, Md.-based organization.
"It's more than just an average hunt,'' said Harbaugh, a second lieutenant with the Marine Corps who is studying at Carnegie Mellon University while he rehabilitates his injured shoulder. "Going out with others like you, the bonding experience, the friendships formed, that's something you can't trade for anything.''
Harbaugh and other vets said programs such as this one are more important than ever. Thousands of soldiers are returning home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other locales, and many will struggle to fit into civilian life. Junior Ortiz, a Marine veteran and the U.S. Labor Department's deputy assistant secretary of Policy, Veterans' Employment and Training Services, told mental health professionals in Canonsburg last month that adjustment can seem impossible.
"We are taught to be great,'' Ortiz said. "Never show emotion. Never show your weaknesses. How do you expect them to act when they come back?''
Houston served with the Army during the 2003 invasion of Baghdad. He lost his leg when an unmanned gun in a Humvee discharged an 8-inch, .50-caliber bullet, meant to be used to stop armored vehicles. It tore through his left knee.
The explosion led Houston to believe the Humvee was under attack. He jumped outside to return fire without realizing "my leg was still in the truck.''
"I couldn't stand up,'' Houston said. "And I couldn't figure out why I couldn't stand up until I looked down and, you know ... there was nothing there.''
Last week's hunt was the second Harbaugh's group organized. The first, in Maryland last month, involved vets from Missouri, Florida and Maryland.
For this hunt, Houston and 13-year Marine veteran Josh Caskey, 31, of Cranberry, Pa., hunted with disabled and sick children invited by the property owners, Tom and Wendy Belinda.
The Belindas bought 1,300 acres of woodland stretching from the Frankstown branch of the Juniata River to the summit of Locke Mountain in the late 1990s. They since have lived largely off proceeds from timber sales, said Tom Belinda, the younger brother of former Pirates pitcher Stan Belinda.
"My wife and I have been so blessed up here,'' Belinda said. "I wake up every day and look out on that mountain and say, 'How can we use this to help others?'''
He got involved with A Child's Wish Foundation, which takes sick children on fishing trips. As a professional angler, Belinda, won two boats and about $250,000 in competitions.
He recalled fishing with a girl named Abigal, 8, who had cancer and weighed just 30 pounds. Belinda helped her catch her first fish. A photo of them smiling and holding up the fish hangs on the wall of his sprawling, three-story log cabin.
"That's what spurred it all,'' he said. "That changed my life and perspective.''
Wanting to do more, he worked with the foundation to find children interested in hunting, but lacking the means to do so. He invited them to his property, where he and his hunting buddies led them on expeditions. His church donated money for food, but Belinda covers all other expenses, including lodging, hunting gear and shooting lessons.
Matthew Coulter, 15, of Brockway, Pa., was one of the first guests, who returned with the wounded vets. Matthew was born with bleeding on the brain, his dad, Donald Coulter, said. He is autistic, suffers seizures and is legally blind. There, though, he becomes a hunter.
His dad spots deer for him and helps him aim; Matthew pulls the trigger. On that first trip, Matthew shot a deer. When it fell, he shouted excitedly in the silent woods, "Winner winner, chicken dinner!''
The outburst scared off the herd, but the other hunters didn't care. Instead, they nicknamed Matthew "Chicken Dinner.''
"We're not a well-off family,'' Donald Coulter said. "I could never take him somewhere and be on land this beautiful, around people who so genuinely care about him. He looks forward to this all year.''
Belinda and Harbaugh met this year and decided to link the vets with the children. They thought a child with cancer might inspire a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; a vet missing a limb might befriend a developmentally disabled boy.
For Caskey, seeing kids such as Matthew provided perspective. Caskey suffered spinal cord and brain injuries in Iraq in 2007. He had returned to his barracks from a routine watch, cleaned his gun and was preparing for chow, he said. Then a nearby suicide bomber detonated.
The blast blew sandbags through the barracks and sent troops flying. Someone landed on Caskey's back, breaking his tailbone. Shrapnel bore into his face and back.
"I have a high threshold for pain,'' Caskey said. "I had none that day.'' Several surgeries on his back did not reduce the constant pain, he said. The brain trauma makes him chronically dizzy. He has short-term memory loss and sometimes stutters.
Yet seeing the children on this hunting trip, including Coulter and a girl who underwent two kidney transplants, stops him from feeling sorry for himself, he said.
"These are kids. It makes you think, if they can deal and move on, there's no reason why you can't,'' Caskey said.
Being around other vets helped, he said. They understand what he has seen and who he has become.
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From the Robbins house to you and yours, we would like to wish you and yours a happy and safe holiday season.