When Sean Roberts returned from deployment in Afghanistan two years ago, he had a difficult time transitioning to civilian life.
He said he didn’t know how people would perceive his career in the Army. He stopped leaving the house except to attend college classes.
“Then I got sponsored to come to Enduring Gratitude, and it was really inspiring,” said Roberts.
Enduring Gratitude is an annual appreciation day for veterans held at Beaver Pond Sporting Club in Snow Camp, southwest of Chapel Hill. On Saturday, veterans from across North Carolina and nearby states enjoyed a free day of hunting, skeet shooting and sharing meals with others who served in the military.
“We were out here shooting, but that was kind of an afterthought,” said Roberts, who now serves as a volunteer for the event. “It was more about the fellowship with the other veterans, and it gave me the confidence to get back in society.”
Johnny Miller, the owner and operator of Beaver Pond Sporting Club, said he and his brother Phil started the event seven years ago to give back to those who served their country. Since 2010, the event has grown from 22 participants to 115.
In order to throw the event, the Enduring Gratitude board of directors raised $50,000 through donations and recruited more than 150 volunteers along with 20 hunting dogs. Costs were offset by donations of food and gifts from local businesses, including Hickory Farms.
The veterans could take home the pheasants they shot, and nearly everyone won a prize in a raffle. For veterans who came from Virginia and Florida, the organization put them up in the Beaver Pond lodge or local hotels.
“A lot of the veterans say, ‘This is the first time anyone has thanked me,’ ” said Phil Miller. “So this is just an event we do for all the right reasons. We have great respect for everything they do.”
The event’s keynote speaker, former Army Pathfinder Chris Williamson, said he was just a regular guy put into extraordinary situations in Iraq.
Williamson was serving with the Pathfinders of the 101st Battalion during the first Iraq war when his Blackhawk helicopter was shot down. He and the only other survivor of the crash fought enemy fire for almost two hours before he was rescued and realized he had broken his neck and back.
“The adrenaline kept me going, but it was like quick-dry cement,” said Williamson. “Every moment you can move less and less.”
He returned from Iraq in a wheelchair and had to abandon plans for an Army career. But like so many of the veterans in the room, he was quick to laud others.
“I am so humbled,” said Williamson, “These guys are heroes.”
To participate or volunteer in the 2017 Enduring Gratitude event, go to enduringgratitude.org/.