A tear rolled down Leroy E. Steigerwalt Jr.'s cheek when he received a hero's welcome at a recent deer hunt 39 years after fighting in Vietnam.
Steigerwalt was among a convoy of 46 disabled hunters who were greeted Nov. 8 along a canopy of oaks at Nemours Plantation in Yemassee by members of and volunteers for the Safari Club International Low Country Chapter's sixth annual Wheelchair and Wounded Warrior Deer Hunt. The hunts were held Nov. 8-9 at several of the Lowcountry plantations on the ACE Basin.
The hunt gives disabled hunters a chance to get outdoors and enjoy hunting as well as camaraderie among others like themselves. Volunteers assist the hunters in getting into tree and ground blinds while hunting for deer at area plantations.
Steigerwalt's son Ray, 29, of Sumter might not have made one of the 37 harvests of wild hogs or deer, including an 11-point trophy buck, but he and his father felt and found something more. As they drove down the bunting-wrapped avenue of live oaks before the hunt, people waved American flags, the Parris Island Marine Corps Band played and dignitaries waited to shake their hands.
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"I noticed my dad kept saying when we got in there, 'This is wonderful, this is awesome, I've never had this,'<2009>" said Ray Steigerwalt, who served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, where he suffered traumatic brain injuries. "When we got out of our vehicle, I saw a tear. He was in Vietnam, and they never got that when he got back to the states. He pretty much went into hiding.
"It touched him big time. My dad felt appreciated."
Ray said he also felt appreciated and called the event a healing experience. This was the first time in 10 years Ray and Leroy Steigerwalt had hunted together. The father and son team also bonded and rediscovered the joy of hunting.
"We had one hell of a time just being back in the woods and hunting," Ray Steigerwalt said. "This was the first time in a long time that I saw turkeys, raccoons and sels and I bonded more with my dad. We also got bitten by the hunting bug. Since we got home he's been wanting to go hunting with me."
Safari Club is a hunter advocacy and conservation group that helps maintain the privilege to hunt. Almost 250 volunteers attended this month's hunt. The local Safari Club chapter's 150 members sponsored the event, which brought in 10 hunters from the S.C. Disabled Sports Association, eight from the Outdoor Dream Foundation (ages 7 to 20) and 28 injured veterans, as well as 46 disabled hunters from Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
Hunt organizer and avid hunter Mark Peterson, 57, of Okatie founded the hunt after his friend and fellow hunter, Vijay Viswanathan of Hilton Head Island, was paralyzed in a rappelling accident while he was in college. Peterson and Viswanathan had attended a similar hunt in the Upstate. The local hunt has since expanded to serve injured veterans such as the Steigerwalts, who are ambulatory. The event has grown each year from the original 12 wheelchair hunters six years ago and now also serves non-military disabled hunters, including seriously ill children.
"It puts (the disabled hunters) in a crowd of other people with various similar injuries," Peterson said. "They start sharing stories, exchanging information with the old guys who learned how to cope. It appealed to me as a volunteer to see how much good it does to get them outdoors and not thinking about disabilities anymore."