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HEALING OUR HEROES: Warbler Ridge opens for injured veteran hunters

CHARLESTON — It wasn't long before Winston Woodard received a bit of teasing, along with praise, for his ongoing success at a newly undertaken activity.

Still dressed in his hunting gear, including a crossbow, but also seated in an all-terrain wheelchair, Woodard said he got a deer his first time hunting, with the day's hunt marking his second success.

He said he didn't hunt before an organization that helps injured veterans connected him with the activity.

"It's the fact that I was able to do it," he said.

Woodard and fellow veteran Josue Cordova were able to hunt last week at Warbler Ridge Conservation Area, located between Lake Charleston and Fox Ridge State Park south of Charleston.

An organization called Healing of Our American Heroes teamed with the Grand Prairie Friends, the conservation area's owner, to make the hunt possible.

With Healing of Our American Heroes' efforts, people who suffered disabling injuries during their military service are able to hunt and fish with the organization's connections, supplying equipment and other efforts.

Last week's visit to Warbler Ridge marked one of the first times the organization conducted a hunt outside of its home base in McLean County, group leader Tom Huffington said.

Woodard, a resident of Oak Lawn, said he was injured in a motor vehicle accident while serving in the Army in 1997. He said the tight-knit nature of Healing of Our American Heroes reminds him of the camaraderie of the military.

"I totally appreciate it because I don't get a lot of opportunities to get out," he said of the group's efforts. "It definitely takes me home, in ways."

Cordova, who lives in New Lenox and is the president of a chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, didn't get a deer during the day's hunt but said the experience and the location were both "wonderful."

"It's great being out there," he said.

Cordova was also injured in a motor vehicle accident, during 1995 while he was in the Air Force.

He said an uncle introduced him to hunting in 2006 and "I've been hooked ever since." He agreed with Woodard about the companionship and the chance to be outdoors are benefits of the help of Healing of Our American Heroes.

"Opportunities like this, I'm grateful," Cordova said. "That makes for a wonderful time."

The Urbana-based Grand Prairie Friends purchased several different tracks of land and began efforts to restore them to their natural state to develop Warbler Ridge.

GPF Director Sarah Livesay said she contacted Huffington after learning about Healing of Our American Heroes so they could arrange for the hunt to take place there.

She said outreach programs such as the hunting event go along with the group's other missions of promoting conservation and preservation.

"How better to do our mission than to help people heal?" Livesay said. "It's part of what we do."

Huffington said Healing of Our American Heroes started eight years ago with six hunters and it now works with hundreds from several states.

Any veteran who meets the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs designation of at least a 10 percent disability qualifies for the group's programs, he said. That includes non-physical injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The organization covers the costs of transportation and most of the gear needed, and hunters get to keep the meat from their hunts, he also said.

"We look at who we think needs to hunt the most, who will benefit the most," Huffington said.

He said there's information on the group's Facebook page for veterans who are interested in participating in the program.

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