After two hours of fruitless calling, one of the guides left the blind and circled around to the far side of the bog where we could hear ducks on the water. He waded in, knee-deep in water, and flushed the birds out. They flew straight past the blind; three shotguns barked and a green-headed mallard plummeted to the ground.
It would be the only duck taken that morning.
Nearby, hunters and guides waited in two other blinds on Annis' property, emitting a series of squawks, bleats and chirps in hopes of drawing some of the thousands of ducks that passed overhead low enough to become dinner. None volunteered.
If it was just another day in the life of an outdoorsman, however, this was no ordinary duck hunt. Most of the hunters were combat veterans and all had served in uniform at one time or another. Annis, who is a ditch rider for the North Sterling Irrigation Co., hosted the hunt on his land, and the hunt was sponsored by Reunite the Fight, a non-profit veteran organization. RTF was formed in 2017 by Scott Gatto and other Marines who had fought together during the second Battle for Fallujah, Iraq in 2004-2005.
The two-day hunt was one of a number of outings RTF has arranged for veterans to come together and re-live the comradery known only to those who have served in uniform, and especially those whose lives have been welded together on the anvil of the battlefield. Gatto and his volunteers have hosted more than 1,200 veterans on hunting trips and golf outings over the years.
In his book "Wild at Heart," John Eldridge posits that the human male is hard-wired for adventure and is born a natural warrior, and that pastimes like camping, hunting and fishing, and work that takes men outdoors fulfills the warrior heart. Scott Gatto is just such a man. He looks at you with intense brown eyes and he seems to be constantly leaning forward. He is the CEO of Reunite the Fight, and the organization is clearly his passion. If you ask him about the veteran experience in America today, you'd better take a seat because the answer is going to take a while.
"When I was in (the Marine Corps) I had a sense of belonging, I felt that this is where I belong,"" he said. "When I got out, I couldnt find that anywhere, so after a while I went back in.""
Having completed a second tour of duty, Gatto knew he needed to do something to keep in touch with his comrades-in-arms because they were the only ones who could understand what he felt and how he saw the world.
"Serving in any branch of the military, you learn to sacrifice time with family and loved ones. Your fellow Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, they become your new family," he said. "In most cases these men and women experience more with their fellow comrades during their service commitments than they do with their own families. Combat is just another ingredient that solidifies the bonds between warriors."
Hence, Reunite the fight.
Many of the outings become mini-reunions of men and women who have served together. Gatto said the reunions have made a positive impact by rejuvenating morale in a networking environment for veterans. He said RTF has expanded the reunion concept by helping veterans on the brink of suicide come to terms with their past and the emotions that stem from the chaos of combat.
Gatto doesn't just magically produce the outings; they are the result of coordination and work by a whole squadron of sponsors and volunteers. For the Sterling duck hunt, Annis got help from his boss, Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation Co. He borrowed all-terrain vehicles from his friends Josh and Steve Klein, and from Horizon Motor Sports. Fastenal of Sterling, Bomgaar's of Sterling, Delta Waterfowl Foundation and Austin Danley's Colorado Custom Game Calls all pitched in with gear, funds and other support. Gary Potts loaded up his smoker, bought all the groceries and served up two breakfasts, two suppers and two lunches for the hunters. Sterling's VFW chapter presented the colors on the first evening of the outing, and Steve Shelton of Cabela's Pro Staff in Loveland lined up several thousand dollars' worth of gear and clothing.
When all was said and done, though it really wasn't about the ducks. It was about kinship, it was about sitting around a fire pit, having a beer, swapping tales and solving the problems of the world. And it was a way all of those who had contributed could thank the men who had served: former Marines Gatto, Ken Humphrey, Ryan O'Malley and Jay Burris, and former Coast Guardsmen Jay Adams and Eric Leaf.
It was yet another way to say, "Thank you for your service."
Jeff Rice | Staff Writer
Jeff Rice is a reporter for the Journal-Advocate. He rejoined the paper in July 2016.