HALIFAX — Gary Stouffer says there's nothing better to silence the echoes than a quiet walk in the woods.
"You can get in touch with nature and let nature hear the wounds of war," said CWO Stouffer, a native of Central Pennsylvania and veteran of almost more foreign wars than he can count in his 17 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. "Let mother nature hear you. You find peace in the woods."
Even, and for some especially, with a hunting rifle.
For many servicemen returning from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Balkans - just as with their forebears returning from Vietnam or Korea or Normandy or Gettysburg - everyday life can prove to be a different challenge than for civilians.
And Greg Quiel of Garner, an avid outdoorsman who loves to hunt just about whatever is in season, has been doing what he can to help veterans get some relaxation and fun. Quiel, a federal civilian firefighter at Camp Lejeune, is the founder of the Big Rack Trophy Club for deer hunters, along with a bird-hunting club called the Quack and Quail Club.
On Saturday at the Wayne Short Farm, Quiel's clubs sponsored a quail hunt for four veterans with a few dozen area hunters along to help. A morning and afternoon of hunting was punctuated by a hot dog lunch on a cold, sunny day.
It's the fourth time Quiel's group has sponsored a hunt for the veterans in conjunction with Freedom Alliance, a non-profit group founded by retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and headquartered in Dulles, Va.
"I was never in the service, and this is my way of giving back," said Quiel, a native of Hyde Park, N.Y., who has been a firefighter for 25 years. "I really enjoy doing these - before Freedom Alliance got involved I was doing it with my wife Darlene and my daughters Samantha and Casey.
"In quail hunting you can go out and talk and laugh. You don't have to be as quiet as deer hunting or duck hunting. As far as doing it with the veterans, it's just great watching them laughing and carrying on with their sons and daughters."
'Having a lot of fun'
Marine Sgt. Josh Dennis, who is originally from West Virginia and like Stouffer has been a hunter and fisherman for as long as he can remember, was on the trip.
"I did a bass-fishing trip with Freedom Alliance last season," said Dennis, who did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a combat engineer and now lives in Ridgeway, Va. "I'm having a lot of fun and meeting new people. And I killed two quail in the morning. I guess it's good if you get one."
Pepper Ailor, the director of programs for Freedom Alliance, said Quiel's hunts are exactly what the wounded veterans need.
"We work with the club to provide a year membership to one of the attendees, and we also help them find these guys and get them here," said Ailor, who is not a hunter but attends the hunts as a representative of the foundation. "They're generally from Camp Lejeune or Fort Bragg or are recently retired veterans.
"You put them around people who know and love what they do where they can feel safe and do what they want to do and bring some normalcy back to their lives."
'We owe these men'
Short, a retired district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who runs the farm and is a trained blacksmith and bladesmith on the side, entertained the hunters by showing them a little of his ancient craft.
"We owe these men a lot," Short said. "They've been out and fought for their country and been wounded. I'm proud to have them here."
Short's neighbor and friend Herman Massey gives the veterans the chance to hunt on his land as well.
"I just want to give back to these veterans who've served," said Massey, himself an ex-Marine who served in Korea.
Veterans like CWO Stouffer, who have seen more than their share of violence and are now looking for some personal peace.
"I've been in Kosovo, Albania, evacuations in Africa, Iraq a couple of times and Afghanistan, Kuwait ... I've really been to more countries than states in a lot of joint ops," said Stouffer, who has become a military liaison for Freedom Alliance and helps identify fellow servicemen and veterans who might benefit from a walk in the woods.
Stouffer's 11-year-old son Shane accompanied him on Saturday's hunt.
"I've spent the majority of his life gone, and now he goes where I go," said CWO Stouffer, who with his wife also has a 16-year-old daughter. "My wife and I counted up after 17 years I've been home nine. But I'm a better person for what I've seen and what I've done as a Marine.
"I've hunted rabbits, squirrels, pheasant and whitetail and done a lot of fishing, and now I'm into ducks and quail. This is a great way to get to know the guys beside you and build camaraderie with new people."