First Winner
Well of Confidence
Capt. Brian Donlon, USMC
Arlington, VA** Growing up, I spent every summer at my grandparents' farm in Virginia. All of my memories of these trips include hours spent ranging along oak-lined ridges and across fields of tall grass and bramble, pellet rifle always in hand. In those sun-drenched, humid summer days, I entertained two fantasies. The first was of hunting big game as Theodore Roosevelt did, across continents and in exotic locales; the second was of earning the right to call myself a United States Marine. Every deer track and turkey feather I encountered seemed solid proof of my growing ability in the wild, each shot from my rifle a testament that I too could be part of the brotherhood that fought "in any clime or place." These days, my time spent wandering freely through the hills has become more precious than ever, for while I have long since abandoned my hope of becoming a professional hunter, I have been honored to serve as a Marine over the last four years. Nonetheless, while one dream has fallen in the wake of the other, I still see a complementary nature between my life as a hunter and my life as a Marine. I increasingly find that where I become a stronger hunter, I become a more proficient Marine, particularly in my self-sufficiency, confidence and ability to interpret a challenge from a perspective outside my own. I define self-sufficiency as a collection of individual disciplines that allows me to succeed amid the stresses of fatigue and discomfort. The qualities needed to spend a cold desert night watching a sliver of road from the muddy edge of a reed-filled canal are the same as those that keep a hunter silent and patient for hours in a tree stand, though everything about the wind-frozen morning he endures tells him to seek cover and warmth far from the lonely deer trail he watches. Such qualities do not come free with the purchase of a hunting license, nor, despite the myth, are they permanent characteristics of boot camp. Planning, patience and endurance are learned through repetition. In my case, the repetition came on those afternoons spent scouting for sign and those mornings spent tramping through snow searching for a wounded deer. Later, this same germ of self-sufficiency would serve as the start of deeper disciplines I would use as a Marine. Hemingway once wrote of a soldier returning from World War I and the confidence he felt when he remembered "all of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else." The last day I hunted for whitetail deer was four winters ago. Many times in the three deployments that have separated me from that afternoon, I have closed my eyes and thought of the buck crossing over the ridgetop and pushing toward my stand, his feet rustling the graying leaves along the trail. I can still hear the sound of the single gunshot and feel the recoil of the weapon in the instant before the deer fell. The buck was not exceptional in size of body or rack, nor was the shot taken at a great distance. Yet confidence still projects from this memory, for the moment was unmarred by ambiguity or doubt. A hunt was planned, an afternoon was spent in the pursuit and the goal was achieved. There was no question in the end, only the certainty of success. This incident is an example of the small moments of confidence born of my hunts that built upon one another and thus, in the times when I was most challenged by fear, fatigue, homesickness and stress, provided a well, a reservoir of confidence from which I drew. I have been taught many times that "the enemy has a vote," that the best plan is one that understands the enemy. Whether you're seeking bear along mount. Outdoor Life Online Editor
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"Second

Second Winner

Skills That Count
Maj. Jonathan W. Fox, U.S. Army
?North Pole, AK** When I first joined the U.S. Army at 18, I put down my rifle, bow, traps and shotgun and picked up an M-16A1 rifle. For an infantryman, shooting is a critical skill. I was amazed to find that many, even most, of my fellow recruits had never fired a weapon. I was astounded by that, since growing up I went from a BB gun to a single-shot .22 to a single-shot .410 on up. My father taught me and my brothers right when he insisted we all learn how to handle firearms safely and that we start with a single-shot weapon. Make that first shot count. As I grew older hunting the North Woods of Wisconsin, I learned how to sit still for hours at a time, how to blend into the shadows, to always have a backdrop breaking up my ?silhouette. Still-hunting for whitetail deer taught me many lessons: move slowly; watch your step; look for the flick of an ear, the glint of an antler, the outline of a deer’s back. Look through the forest””not at it. Simply be as observant of your surroundings as you can possibly be. When we started patrolling, it was obvious most soldiers were not used to walking in the woods. I learned at a very young age some easy lessons that many of my comrades had yet to learn: don’t follow too closely or you’ll catch a branch in the face; movement is easier to spot; use the shadows; walk on the balls of your feet. When my father, brothers or I shot game, whether it was grouse, snowshoe hare, deer or bear, I observed life leaving the animal. I saw what was inside. I am not ashamed to say that I cried the first time I shot a young spike buck when I was 11 years old. It taught me about much more than just harvesting that young buck; it also taught me about life and death””how precious life is and the finality of death. Hunting has, without a doubt, played a great role in making me the infantry soldier I am now. I currently am fighting in the streets of Mosul in northern Iraq. Where I am stationed is surely not the woods of northern Wisconsin or Alaska, but an urban jungle. However, the skills I learned through trial and error in those woods have helped keep me and my fellow soldiers alive. The lessons I learned as a young man hunting are as poignant now as they were back then. Probably more so, since what I’m hunting shoots back! The enemy here leaves sign””they can’t help it much more than a big buck can. Just as that buck leaves tracks, the enemy sniper leaves footprints in old, dusty buildings. The enemy’s muzzle blast blows dust and sand off the broken windowsill. The enemy can’t hide his caches without disturbing something””dug-up ground, torn-up vegetation. Instead of animal scat, we find empty shell casings. Just as rubs or scrapes let you know a buck is working the area, an IED blast lets you know the enemy is working the area. Choose a building or a piece of terrain with good fields of fire, good routes in or out with cover and concealment. Getting to your hide site undetected is very similar to getting to your deer stand. Then be patient. Many big-game animals have walked through an area undetected simply because the hunter did not have the patience or discipline to hold fast and wait. As there is a profound sense of accomplishment upon killing a nice buck, there is an even greater sense of accomplishment in killing an insurgent who was in the act of emplacing an IED. As a hunter you’ve provided food for your family. As a soldier you’ve allowed your men a secure route. Both indeed sustain life. The transition from hunting to being an infantryman is natural and almost seamless; however, failure in a hunter’s mission rarely brings about his death in the modern world, whereas failure in an infantryman’s mission can mean death for him and his buddies. I’ve found throughout my military career that hunters make the best soldiers. Skilled in
"First

First Runner-Up

S.Sgt. Russell B. Miller
USMC
Chandler, AZ** Buffalo season closed at dusk on New Year’s Eve. “The dumbest buffalo in Arizona just outwitted me for ten days,” I observed as our final campfire of 2001 held back the deepening snow. Though nobody in our party spotted the elusive timber-dwelling bison of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, we still celebrated a memorable hunt. I heralded 2002 guessing that I’d soon trade my .300 Winchester for an M16. The world had changed in the months since I’d drawn my coveted tag: America had been attacked, and now it was payback time. A week later, I was called back to active duty in the Marine Corps. Fifteen months after that, I led 21 machine gunners during the liberation of Baghdad. Along the way, I needed expertise in firearms, optics and off-road vehicles. I needed navigational skills and physical stamina. I needed to locate my opponents by thinking like them. Above all, I needed to prevail without breaking the rules. In short, I needed to be a hunter. The parallels between hunters and infantrymen begin with our shared tools: firearms, optics and navigation equipment. During our first year at Camp Pendleton, Calif.””painfully, the home to large buffalo herd””the best hunters in my platoon showed themselves to be the most proficient Marines. The Corps teaches marksmanship under controlled conditions on known-distance courses, but rarely makes us estimate distances or prioritize targets””the exact skills needed on the battlefield. They familiarize Marines with optics, but don’t practice systematic searches with binoculars. They teach antiquated compass-based navigation. Before leaving for Iraq, I drilled my men in range estimation and terrain association, and I “suggested” that they buy and master GPS units. In combat I was one of the few men who knew where I was at all times, which direction I was facing, and approximately how far away any enemies were. During a firefight in Baghdad, our reinforced platoon of 60 men was moving to link up with the rest of the company. I was the only one actively monitoring my GPS, and quickly realized we were heading the wrong way. I got the column turned toward the proper rendezvous point, where the enemies shooting at us were the intended ones, at least. I’ve always sought challenging hunts on roadless terrain with scattered game. Arizona Game & Fish named my buffalo hunt “one of the most difficult hunts in the state.” This was small consolation for the missed opportunity, but good preparation for the Corps. Though nearly the oldest man in my unit, I kept up with the young guys during a 27-mile march with 75-pound packs, and I scored highest in physical fitness. Our three-week push to Baghdad joined stupendous mud and sandstorms with hunger and sleepless nights. Baghdad tested my physical limits, as I sprinted across intersections under heavy fire, wearing full armor and lugging belts of ammunition. Without years of rigorous conditioning, I might have been a step too slow at the wrong time. Hunters are used to failure. Most of my hunts end as my buffalo hunt did, just as most of my casts end without a trout on the line. All hunters and fishermen appreciate that unsophisticated creatures on their own terrain often outsmart the savviest outdoorsman. This makes us think like our opponents, continually reevaluate our weaknesses and learn from more successful sportsmen. The buffalo hunt taught me to walk less and glass more. In Iraq, this was equally useful against Saddam’s Fedayeen militia. These irregulars lacked sophistication but understood deception, and were as hard to spot as an Arizona whitetail. I owe my life to the best hunter in my platoon, who spotted an enemy observer directing fire at us. Dressed as a civilian, the enemy observer continually peered out with binoculars from behind a wall, then disappeared again, at which point bad things always happened.
"Second

Second Runner-Up

Capt. Thomas A. Valentine Jr.
USAF
Ramstein Air Base, Germany** The night air was crisp; exhaling deeply, I could just barely see my breath. The sky was amazingly clear, and through the night-vision goggles attached to my helmet, thousands of stars twinkled brightly, bathing the desert scrub brush around me in an eerie green glow. Scanning the horizon, I watched for any signs of movement that might indicate we had walked into an ambush. Satisfied there were none, I keyed the microphone attached to my body armor and quietly whispered, “Gator, this is Stingray. All clear.” My partner simply keyed his microphone twice in response, so as not to produce any unnecessary noise. We were providing perimeter security while our teammates met with a covert source, a Bedouin shepherd who lived near our base. I was the detachment commander, directly responsible for the overall success of our mission and the lives of my men. Our job was to gather human intelligence (“HUMINT”) from local Iraqis like the shepherd, in order to provide advanced warning of any potential terrorist attacks against our base or convoys. I had been in Iraq for about four months, and missions like this were becoming routine””we had already thwarted three imminent attacks, and so far the insurgents in our area had not carried out a successful attack. But it was dangerous meeting with the locals, even under cover of darkness; we could never be completely sure whether the meeting might actually be a trap set to lure us into an ambush. Now, as I gazed up at the Milky Way shining so brilliantly over my head, my thoughts drifted back to another time and place, far away from the sands of the Iraqi desert… Movement caught my eye. At almost the same instant, my grandfather placed his left hand on my right shoulder as we sat in our tree stand. He quietly hissed a single word through clenched teeth: “Deer.” It was getting darker by the second, and we had been planning to give up for the day in a few more minutes. But suddenly, four apparitions emerged from the edge of the woods, about a hundred yards from our stand. Slowly, I scanned the deer through the scope on my .30-06 rifle and settled on the largest of the four. I had never shot a deer before, and my heart was pounding so hard my ears were ringing. As I flicked the safety off, the deer heard the metallic click and immediately stared in our direction. I froze, and after another minute passed, they went back to grazing. Trying to steady the crosshairs as they danced a cloverleaf across the deer’s chest, I gently increased pressure on the triggerÂ… Lights appeared on the horizon. A moment later, I realized they were headlights””and they were coming our way at a fast clip. “Gator, lights at your six,” I whispered. “Roger that,” came the immediate reply. I crouched down behind a small sand dune and took aim at the vehicle, then quickly scanned around me to make sure this wasn’t just a planned distraction. Confident there was no other movement, I reacquired the target and realized it was a small, white pickup truck, one of the favorite modes of transportation in this area. But there was no way to be sure it wasn’t a threat, so I tried to flatten my body against the cold sand while flicking the selector switch on my M-4 carbine from “Safe” to “Auto.” I centered the red-dot sight on the driver’s head and made up my mind to start firing at approximately 70 yards out. “Stingray, I’ve got multiple targets in the truck.” “Roger, I’ve got the driver,” was my terse reply. Slowly, I took up the slack in the trigger and released half my breathÂ… The recoil of the rifle took me by surprise, and before I could recover, my grandfather was slapping me on the back and shouting, “You got him!” As I gazed out into the field, three white flags were bounding quickly away from us, but there was a deer lying motionless on its side. I had done
"Second

Second Runner-Up

Capt. Thomas A. Valentine Jr.
USAF
Ramstein Air Base, Germany** The night air was crisp; exhaling deeply, I could just barely see my breath. The sky was amazingly clear, and through the night-vision goggles attached to my helmet, thousands of stars twinkled brightly, bathing the desert scrub brush around me in an eerie green glow. Scanning the horizon, I watched for any signs of movement that might indicate we had walked into an ambush. Satisfied there were none, I keyed the microphone attached to my body armor and quietly whispered, “Gator, this is Stingray. All clear.” My partner simply keyed his microphone twice in response, so as not to produce any unnecessary noise. We were providing perimeter security while our teammates met with a covert source, a Bedouin shepherd who lived near our base. I was the detachment commander, directly responsible for the overall success of our mission and the lives of my men. Our job was to gather human intelligence (“HUMINT”) from local Iraqis like the shepherd, in order to provide advanced warning of any potential terrorist attacks against our base or convoys. I had been in Iraq for about four months, and missions like this were becoming routine””we had already thwarted three imminent attacks, and so far the insurgents in our area had not carried out a successful attack. But it was dangerous meeting with the locals, even under cover of darkness; we could never be completely sure whether the meeting might actually be a trap set to lure us into an ambush. Now, as I gazed up at the Milky Way shining so brilliantly over my head, my thoughts drifted back to another time and place, far away from the sands of the Iraqi desert… Movement caught my eye. At almost the same instant, my grandfather placed his left hand on my right shoulder as we sat in our tree stand. He quietly hissed a single word through clenched teeth: “Deer.” It was getting darker by the second, and we had been planning to give up for the day in a few more minutes. But suddenly, four apparitions emerged from the edge of the woods, about a hundred yards from our stand. Slowly, I scanned the deer through the scope on my .30-06 rifle and settled on the largest of the four. I had never shot a deer before, and my heart was pounding so hard my ears were ringing. As I flicked the safety off, the deer heard the metallic click and immediately stared in our direction. I froze, and after another minute passed, they went back to grazing. Trying to steady the crosshairs as they danced a cloverleaf across the deer’s chest, I gently increased pressure on the triggerÂ… Lights appeared on the horizon. A moment later, I realized they were headlights””and they were coming our way at a fast clip. “Gator, lights at your six,” I whispered. “Roger that,” came the immediate reply. I crouched down behind a small sand dune and took aim at the vehicle, then quickly scanned around me to make sure this wasn’t just a planned distraction. Confident there was no other movement, I reacquired the target and realized it was a small, white pickup truck, one of the favorite modes of transportation in this area. But there was no way to be sure it wasn’t a threat, so I tried to flatten my body against the cold sand while flicking the selector switch on my M-4 carbine from “Safe” to “Auto.” I centered the red-dot sight on the driver’s head and made up my mind to start firing at approximately 70 yards out. “Stingray, I’ve got multiple targets in the truck.” “Roger, I’ve got the driver,” was my terse reply. Slowly, I took up the slack in the trigger and released half my breathÂ… The recoil of the rifle took me by surprise, and before I could recover, my grandfather was slapping me on the back and shouting, “You got him!” As I gazed out into the field, three white flags were bounding quickly away from us, but there was a deer lying motionless on its side. I had done

A few months ago, we asked U.S. servicemen and women to express their thoughts about how hunting has made them more effective in the field. The incentive? The writers of two winning essays would go on the hunt of a lifetime in Saskatchewan with Prophet Muskwa Outfitters and OL’s own Jim Zumbo. Here are the two winners and the two runners-up.

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