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Getting vets outdoors

Solon-based Iowa Veterans Outdoor Experience growing through giving

SOLON– They’re just taking care of family.
And veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces are the biggest family you’ll ever know, Brad Storck explained.
Storck is a co-founder of Iowa Veterans Outdoor Experience (IVOE), a homegrown non-profit which hosts a group of disabled veterans twice a year for an exclusive hunt on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ground at Coralville Lake.
The group has been around for seven years, staffed by volunteers from the Solon American Legion and supported with contributions from area businesses and organizations.
“We couldn’t do it without this community,” Storck noted.
IVOE was born after a group of Solon Legion members answered a call for volunteers by Healing at English River Outfitters (HERO) in Washington (IA) to help with a hunt at Coralville Lake. HERO provides a relaxing outdoor recreation area in Washington County for veterans and families.
“We kind of decided if we split apart, we could help more veterans,” Storck said. “And it’s been a great experience so far.”
Storck, his brother Scott, Curt Phillips, Mike McCarthy, Cliff Bohling and Randy Henrichson became the founding members of IVOE.
The group was able to continue a relationship with the Corps of Engineers and keep hunting on 33,000 acres around the Coralville Reservoir not accessible to the general public.
“It’s grown and grown and grown ever since then and just had amazing support throughout the community,” Storck said.
IVOE just increased to two hunts a year– one around Veterans Day for an early-season bow/crossbow deer hunt, and a late-season muzzleloader which concluded earlier this month.
“Our biggest goal is to make sure we’re taking care of the vets,” he said.
The founders each took a state-certified course to identify Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Survivor’s Guilt and have made connections with similar groups throughout the state, which has helped out immensely.
“We’ve had letters, phone calls, emails from the vets that have attended our hunts, that have told us had we not come to this hunt, we probably would’ve ended it,” Storck said. “You read those letters and you get those phone calls and it makes sense to what we’re doing.”
One hunt participant showed up just in the nick of time for the safety briefing and organizers found out later he sat in his driveway for about a half hour “debating whether he was going to come to our hunt or just end it,” he said.
After participating, the veteran returned for a subsequent hunt and cooked breakfast for the group.
Each hunt starts on a Friday with a safety briefing, followed by a tour of the Coralville Lake grounds, including the blinds and the maintenance shed where hunters bunk for the weekend.
Some are experienced, some are novices, Storck noted. Three of this year’s hunters had never fired a muzzleloader.
The hunt used to begin Saturday morning, but now they start right in Friday afternoon.
“Every hunter who we’ve had, they’ve just been so excited to actually get out there and get started hunting,” Storck explained. “As everybody knows, Iowa has some of the best deer in the entire land.”
Up to 10 hunters are allowed, two in each blind, to keep numbers manageable.
Friday evening, the hunters enjoy a meal at the shed, where IVOE members encourage them to interact.
“The whole point of what we do is to bring the camaraderie back that these guys lost when they got out of the military,” he noted.
It starts out tentatively, but by the end of the weekend everyone is exchanging phone numbers and emails and they stay in touch.
IVOE keeps in touch, too.
“There’s a lifestyle that we live in the military have, and a camaraderie that is something beyond what the average civilian understands,” Storck said. “When you retire from the military and you don’t have that any more, a lot of things change in your life.
“Your military family is still there and will be always,” he added. “You just have to reach out to them.”
Hunters spend the night in the shed, and are told in advance to bring bedding. IVOE supplies cots when requested.
Saturday is a full day of hunting, with a morning and an afternoon session capped off in Solon at the Legion for a silent auction and public open house. The auction was held early for the latest hunt due to a scheduling conflict.
But it turned out for the best, Storck said.
“This year was fantastic,” he said.
The previous auction netted about $6,000, he said, while this year’s brought in close to $9,000.
Sunday is another day of hunting, followed by a family dinner, this year featuring a barbecue by Rod Neuzil of Iowa City, to which spouses and significant others are invited, he said.
The hunting weekend concludes with a Monday morning session out at the lake, and IVOE members pack up the supplies and have cleared out by noon.
The muzzleloader hunt was the first to include veterans from outside of Iowa, Storck noted, with participants from Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Michigan and Kentucky. Social media has been key in getting the word out, he noted.
“It’s been great to be able to expand,” he said.
IVOE had 60 veterans apply for the 10 available spots in the most recent hunt.
The program has been such a hit Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is expected to bring his sergeant major to the first hunt next year to see if the idea can be integrated at other Corps properties.
The first 2020 hunt was one of the least successful, however. Only two deer were harvested, but Storck noted two teams from out of state let a lot of deer go by waiting for a trophy buck.
The hunters usually bag between eight and 12, he said.
The group started using its members’ own blinds and chairs, and IVOE can provide crossbows, bows and muzzleloaders when needed.
“We pay for everything, the hunters only need to get here,” he said.
Through generous local donations, he said, IVOE now has 10 dedicated blinds and other equipment.
Fin & Feather and Scheels have been fantastic supporters, providing thousands of dollars in equipment and loaners, he said.
The Hawkeye Chapters of 100+ Men Who Care and 100+ Women Who Care selected IVOE as a recipient of a quarterly donation that totaled close to $25,000, he added.
Solon American Legion Auxiliary members make sack lunches for the hunters with food from Sam’s Main Street Market and Ruzicka’s Meat Processing and Catering pledges to process one deer per hunter for every hunt at no cost, Storck said.
All of the entities of the Legion– Sons of the American Legion, Legion Riders and the post itself– also contribute.
“This town has been amazing to us,” Storck said. “To see and feel that much love from the entire Johnson County community is amazing. Iowa, we’re a state unto ourselves.”
And the veterans appreciate the effort.
Kodi Robinson, 30, of Des Moines, a 10-year Army National Guard vet, deployed with Storck in 2010 to Afghanistan.
“It’s just an opportunity to join with brothers and sisters in arms, be able to swap stories and enjoy each other’s company,” Robinson said. “Sometimes, when you get out you miss that feeling of camaraderie.”
Robinson found out about IVOE through Facebook, and decided to apply.
He and his blind partner saw quite a few deer, but came up empty, having missed on his one shot.
But that didn’t stop Robinson from having a great experience.
“I love the outdoors,” he explained. “I just want to thank IVOE for the opportunity. There’s a lot of organizations, but these guys really take the time out of their own schedules to put this on.”
Scott Gilje of Prairie City, a 21-year Army veteran, and Robinson are both members of the Wounded Warrior Project. One of the members had mentioned IVOE and after some research, Gilje decided to apply.
He’d never been to the Coralville Lake area, despite a career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a master’s degree in wildlife management.
“It’s gorgeous,” he said. “Might have to bring the family back and go camping.”
Gilje thanked IVOE and the Legion for hosting.
“For me it’s just being out in nature, and then the camaraderie of being with my fellow veterans,” he said. “That’s always just uplifting for me.
“It’s always great when we get together,” Gilje added. “We build each other up.”