Sportsmen's Foundation for Military Families

The Gardella family

The Gardella family

I want first to say thank you to Cdr. Barry Hull, Mr. Danny Santangelo and all the sponsors for making these hunts possible for all of us combat veterans.  A huge thank you to the Arrow S Ranch,   Mr. Harrison (Owner), Rocky Roberts (Ranch Foreman) and Brian Jackson (Wildlife Mgr & Guide) for donating this experience to me.  I would put my experience against any that has been televised.  I will attempt to put into words what I had the pleasure of experiencing.
My trip started back in October 2010 when a friend told me about the Foundation.  I filled out the application and was surprised to receive a phone call approximately two hours later from Danny thanking me for serving and that they would love to send me on a hunting trip.  Danny went the extra mile for me and instead of staying in North Carolina he put a hunt together for me in South Texas.  I contacted Brian Jackson at the Ranch and began to make my arrangements.  I had several conversations with Brian and I knew that this was going to be an incredible trip.

The night before my trip I could not sleep. I was feeling like a five year old on Christmas Eve.  I arrived in Texas in the early afternoon and was met by my guide, Brian Jackson, and his son Caleb.  We climbed in the truck and began our journey South to the Ranch.  Brian and I talked the entire ride there and even had a few laughs.  I’m thinking that this is too good to be true.  We arrived at the Ranch and I met the rest of his family.  He asked me if I wanted to start my hunt after sighting in the rifle.  My answer was obvious.  Brian, his son and I set up the range and then went over the Remington 700.  With his son Caleb’s final instructions, I fired the first round. Slightly low and a touch left. Second round attached to the first.  We all felt comfortable with the results and made plans to head out.

On the way to the blind Brian and I talked and got to know each better.  We arrived at the blind and I set up our spot as he prepared the area and parked the truck.  We were hoping for some hogs to show as I would start the deer hunt tomorrow.  In a very short time I was looking at a very young 6pt buck.  This was the first deer I had ever seen in Texas, other than the ones you see on hunting shows of course.  The rack was a great start, but entirely to small for anyone to take. I heard a strange noise and Brian told me to look his way and see the Javelina.  I said, “have a what?”  He smiled, chuckled and then told me about them.  As we waited and watched, the sun begin to disappear.  Brian turned to me and said, “I was hoping to spill some blood tonight.”  I agreed and told him that this was more than I expected already.  Suddenly, Brian grabbed the binos and told me he spotted a hog.  It was getting darker and more difficult to see.  As I was getting the rifle into position the hog took to the brush. The hog returned and I got it in my sights.  I fired my shot and the massive animal fell where it stood. This was the first and only hog we had seen. We walked out to it and Brian said, “this is a big sow, you are spoiled already!” I didn’t yet know the true meaning of “spoiled” in Texas.  We returned with our harvest and went to the house for an amazing dinner that Kathy, his wife had prepared. I was amazed that I was dining with his family.

The alarm clock goes off at 4:15 a.m.  I want to be awake and mentally ready for the first day of my hunt.  Brian had told me about a beautiful 9pt he had been watching and he wanted me to harvest.  Once again, we headed out to a blind and he informs me that this deer is usually seen in the evening.  If we don’t see him this morning don’t worry we will return in the evening.  As we sat in the blind waiting to see more than just shadows we whispered small talk.  I am straining my eyes to see something, anything.  Approximately 10 minutes after arrival to the blind Brian pops up, I had seen this happen last night!  Brian whispers, “I see a deer…a buck, not sure how big yet.”  He looks through the binos then passes them to me for a look.  I glass the animal and immediately notice the wide spread of the antlers.  We took turns looking at the deer for what seemed like a lifetime trying to determine if he was the one Brian picked out or another “shooter buck” or not.  We waited for the light to give us a proper look at this monster.  Finally, Brian was able to range the deer and make the decision.  He turns to me with a smile and asks, ” do you fell comfortable taking this buck?”  I fell silent for a moment and looked again.  I’m thinking, this is only the second buck   I’ve seen in Texas, is there a chance for a better one?  I ask Brian, “do you think there is a chance for a better one, if it was you would you take the shot?” Brian’s face went blank and he replied, “Oh, I’d take that shot!” I get the rifle in position and wait.  The deer will quarter just enough to not get a clear shot.  Finally he turns and Brian says, “whenever you’re ready.”  I fire the rifle and a cloud of smoke briefly blocks my view.  I see the monster buck fall right where he was standing.  Brian and I look at each other with huge smiles followed by hand shakes and relief!  I want to get out there and see just how big this deer really is.  I was steady and calm until I got my camera in the window of the blind, that’s when the shakes set in!  As we approached the deer the antlers were getting bigger and bigger!  When we finally reached the buck I couldn’t tell who was smiling more about the 10 pointer.  One thing I need to mention here, the time was 7:20a.m.  I had not been in Texas 24 hours yet!  Again, this deer was the first and only deer to be in view of the blind.  Once we returned to the ranch Brian called the Rocky, the foreman to stop over.  When Rocky arrived and got his first look at the deer his jaw dropped a bit then he turned and said, “that…is a very nice deer! I haven’t seen one like this in a while.”  I repeatedly thanked Rocky for approving this hunt for me and that was met with thanks for serving our country. I could not see how this trip could get any better.  We went back out in the afternoon to see about a doe or another hog.  I started seeing more and more bucks and all the does with still with their young.  Finally the hogs came in and we took a male this time.

The next morning we set out with the sole purpose of spotting an amazing 15 point buck.  A standard 8pt with 7 drop tines.  After Brian’s nerve racking walk through the javelinas we talked and waited.  I looked to my left and saw a large black mass in the path.  I glassed the area and discovered that it was a deer.  The animal made its way closer as the the day became brighter.  Once I had a good look at him I asked Brian if that was the one we were looking for.  Brian confirmed that it was and I was hoping for an even better look.  A deer I had never seen the likes of walked within 35 yards of my position and presented me with some great photo opportunities!

This experience has truly changed my life.  Pain is something I deal with everyday, so it was amazing that I had none.  For the first time in over 10 yrs I was pain free for three days. No muscle spasms, no limbs twitching, all of it gone! If those happen to be the only three days I ever get relief, I want you all to know that it was because of you!   I wanted to get back to the basics and this allowed me to do so.  A small and modest area to stay in with no television, radio, internet or any of  the other distractions.  I was in a place where people had to communicate face to face, children had an imagination and people really cared for one another.  I went there alone and was never once treated like a stranger.  I was taken in by Brian, his amazing family, friends & coworkers to be a part of their family.  I was treated with more respect for what I had done than any other time in my life.

I can assure you that this program is real.  This is definitely something positive for corporations, businesses and individuals to get involved in!  I can not thank those who sponsored me enough.  I would encourage all of my brothers and sisters at arms who have “been there and done that” to partake in this program.  I can honestly say that three days of no pain is great, but it doesn’t hold a candle to getting “all the way” back to good.

Thank you once again for the new begining on life.  It is groups like the Foundation, the sponsors and all the persons involved at the Arrow S Ranch that make all of our sacrifices worth while.  Thank you all for your never ending support and generosity.

Thomas Gardella
Disabled Combat Veteran (U.S. ARMY)

August 24, 2015