MOUNT OLIVE — When Brian Willson speaks about the work that has come to define the free hours of his life over the last four years, the respect and reverence he feels for the men and women involved is written in the hushed tone of his voice and the wide-eyed, uncomprehending gaze of a man whose life has led him down a path he never expected to travel.
Willson’s trip into the unknown began in 2007 when a patient, a professional woodcarver, paid a visit to his dental clinic in Fayetteville. The man related to Willson that he was in need of a new wood sander for a project he was working on—making 300 walking sticks with compasses attached to the handle for men and women involved in the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP), a group that seeks to honor and empower members of the U.S Armed Forces who have incurred service-related injuries on or after September 11, 2001. The mission of WWP is to raise awareness about the needs of injured service members, while helping them to aid and assist one another. The group also provides unique programs and services to assist injured service members.
In addition to addressing the physical injuries, WWP also features a Combat Stress Recovery Program to help returning members deal with the emotional and psychological stress incurred as a result of combat and the mental strain of war.
According to the group’s website, with advancements in battlefield medicine and body armor, an unprecedented percentage of service members are surviving severe wounds or injuries. For every U.S. soldier killed in World Wars 1 and 11, there were 1.7 soldiers wounded. In Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, for every U.S. soldier killed, seven are wounded. Combined, there have been almost 42,000 injured in the two conflicts—nearly 32,000 injured in Operation Iraq and nearly 10,000 in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Taking his cue from advice offered by his patient, Willson decided to become active in WWP by offering service members involved in the program a place to hunt on property he owns near Duplin County, a secluded stretch of 150 acres set in the rural farming community along Furney Jones Road in Mount Olive.
“I’ve always been into hunting, and my three sons hunt, so it just seemed like a natural way for me to be able to help,” remembered Willson, during a recent interview at the hunting site.
At the time, said Willson, he was in the process of building a hunting lodge on his property. After making the commitment to become involved in WWP, Wilson said he decided to turn the building into a gathering place for the service members.
“We put it up in about 10 weeks. We came in and made everything handicap accessible and we put in central air, a fridge, a stove, and a microwave,” said Willson.
The lodge, which is painted in camouflage colors, is also reinforced with walls of solid concrete. “It’s not going to go anywhere during a hurricane,” Willson observed.
Turning his attention to means by which he could make the hunting experience both easier and more enjoyable for WWP members, Willson decided to build a series of hunting stands equipped with special features to help them navigate the two story structures.
“I guarantee you we have the only stand in Duplin County with a 200 amp meter box,” smiled Willson.
The most unusual feature of the stands, which are built on concrete slabs and take three to four months to complete, is a chairlift which can be used to carry disabled service members from the bottom floor up to the second story, where a series of rectangular slots are cut into the walls to provide spaces to shoot from. The gun slots offer a clear view of the woods below, and an ideal vantage point for hunting deer.
Willson said the chairlifts were provided by a company called Stairlifts, which is run by Charles Knapp, a former Army physician who served during Operation Desert Storm. Wilson said Knapp sold him the chairs for half price and divided the payments into two installments. According to Wilson, the company is able to provide chairlifts to Wounded Warrior members in their homes for no cost.
“Many of theses families are on a financial thread, so to get these chairs at no cost is a big factor,” said Willson.
The stands also offer a few modern day amenities, such as a coffee maker and a ceiling fan. Willson said he eventually plans to install bathroom facilities on the ground floor as well.
A typical outing, said Willson, begins with him picking up the WWP participants at 5:00 a.m. and taking them to the lodge. After returning from hunting, the service members are treated to a meal of deer stew and vegetables. After the sun sets, Wilson said everyone typically gathers around a large campfire to relax.
Willson said he has two to three hunts a year and normally takes out four to six individuals at a time. The next hunt is planned for November.
Though only one stand is completed at present, it is actually the second one built by Willson and his team. The first one, several hundred yards from the remaining stand, was toppled by winds from Hurricane Irene. “I was sick when I saw what had happened,” said Willson. “There were a lot of hours spent working on that stand.”
Looking over the first projects remains, Willson explained that the entire project has been an exercise in trial and error. “I’m not a construction guy; this has been a learning process for me. I just have to take it one step at a time and learn as I go.”
Willson said he hopes to salvage the stairs and part of the walls of the original stand, and have a new one completed within the next few months.
Joining Willson in the project was his longtime friend, Guenther Labann, who worked beside Willson on both the hunting lodge and tree stand projects. “It’s really rewarding to work with the guys,” stated Labann. “Out here in the country people come out of the woodwork to help.”
As proof of Labann’s words, Willson ran through a list of neighbors, businessmen and friends who have come to his aid since the beginning of the ambitious project. Dan Penny, a farmer from Beulaville, has provided Willson with corn which he uses to attract deer and prepare meals for the WWP members, selling it to him at cost while charging nothing for shipping or labor.
“If he was helping them, I felt like I could help him out,” said Penny about his involvement. “I think it’s a great thing; there’s a lot of people who don’t have the finances to do what he’s doing. We should do something for them (veterans), because they’ve done a lot for us.”
Willson’s neighbor, Dean Cooper, a Vietnam veteran who served in the war from 1967-1968, was generous enough to deed an easement to Willson in order to facilitate access to the property where the stands would be placed. Cooper, who suffers from prostate cancer due to his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, said it was his hope that the experience of the WWP veterans would be far different than his own. “It’s a very good thing Brian’s doing. When I came back from Vietnam we had people spitting at us and calling us ‘baby killer.’ I think it’s different with the people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; there seems to be a little more sympathy.”
Though the public’s reactions may have altered, Cooper said some things are all too familiar. “When these guys come back injured, the government puts them out. The benefits they’re getting aren’t as good as a lot of people think,” he stated.
According to Willson, two other Furney Road neighbors, Ray Bell and Mike Chambers have also played roles in the project: Bell by allowing him to cut through his property while constructing the stands, and Chambers by agreeing not to spray manure at his hog farm during the weekends that Willson hosts WWP members.
Another friend singled out by Willson was Jim Rich of Airco-Reco Heating and Cooling in Kenansville. According to Willson, Rich did all the electrical work on the stands, charging Willson solely for the cost of the materials. When he sent Rich a check for $200, remembered Willson, Rich sent it back a month later.
“Those guys have been terrific,” said Willson. “They didn’t have to do any of this; I’m an outsider and a lot of times people in small communities are very protective and distrustful of anyone not from the area. But everyone’s truly gone out of their way to help.”
Speaking about the men who have come to his lodge in wheelchairs and crutches, sharing their stories around the kitchen table in the hunting lodge, Willson and Labann both shook their heads as they described the mental and physical strength of the soldiers they’ve come to call friends.
“These guys sit around the table, and it’s almost like they’re telling camp fire stories,” said Willson. “One guy has a broken back, another one’s on crutches, some have post traumatic stress syndrome—most of these guys are pretty badly injured. They tell us their stories. They are beginning a whole new chapter in their lives, transitioning out of military life. It’s a whole new world for them.”
“It’s really heartwarming; when theses guys come out there’s no sob stories,” stressed Labann. “There’s never anyone feeling sorry for himself; it’s all uplifting.”
Wilson said he’s seen the stress placed on the families of injured service members first hand. “Being in Fayetteville, a lot of my patients are in the military. I see a lot of wives with husbands in the service. And sometimes the husbands are gone or injured and they’re left alone with three or four kids. They go through a lot.”
Just getting permission to go on the hunt can be an ordeal, said Willson. “They need three different clearances to come: physical, psychological, and legal. There’s a lot of paper work involved. The medical is the main one; if they can be transported and can fire a gun, then there’s no problem with them hunting with us.”
Noting the resolve of many WWP service members, Willson noted: “Everyone’s a unique story. All these guys are tough as nails. We recently met a guy who told us he has to make a decision about whether to keep his arm, which is severely damaged, or have it cut off and be fitted with a prosthetic.
“Everyone has their own everyday worries, but the things theses guys go through are something else entirely. It really puts things in perspective.”