GARDEN CITY, Kan. (MCT) - After Dennis Leonard lost his legs in a roadside bombing during the Iraq War, he never imagined he would end up where he was on a recent Saturday.
He was pheasant hunting again, albeit in a far different way than he once did.
He was in the passenger seat of an ATV, rambling through a golden field in western Kansas and following a couple of high-powered bird dogs as they searched to pick up the scent of birds.
"This feels great, being out here hunting and just having a good time," said Leonard, 26, a Fort Riley, Kan., soldier from Hershey, Pa., who was severely injured in January of 2007.
"This is something that not a lot of people would think you could do without legs. But I've always been a positive person.
"I mean, legs are nice to have, but when you lose them, it's no reason to quit. You have to keep going."
Leonard wasn't the only one overcoming odds on this weekend.
To his left and in surrounding fields, there were lines of walking wounded - Fort Riley soldiers who had been injured in combat - pushing through the fields. Some walked with a limp and still carried shrapnel in their legs or torsos. Others were without an arm. And still others had the facial scars to remind them of the ravages of battle.
They were participating in a patriotic hunt organized by a southwest-Kansas hunting outfitter and his high school daughter and embraced by the communities of Garden City and little Pierceville.
The message: We're grateful for what you've done, and we want to show you a good time.
"You can't put a price on what these guys have done for our country," said Tim Telinde, the Garden City resident who runs Tallgrass Outfitters, himself a former soldier. "They left their family and they went over there to fight for our freedom.
"And many of them sacrificed. Every one of them here went through a lot.
"We just wanted to get together and put on a weekend to make them feel special; to let them know how much we appreciate what they've done."
From the start, it became obvious that this was no ordinary hunt.
Telinde's daughter, Mackenzie, adopted the hunt as her high school senior project, and she went to work soliciting funds and organizing events for the soldiers' families. Money raised by a banquet put on by the local chapter of Pheasants Forever provided a good base. More than 70 businesses and individuals also donated to the cause.
The soldiers were treated like kings. They were presented shotguns, ammunition and hunting vests, and they were treated to big meals.
But best of all, they were treated to some excellent pheasant hunting. On the first day, Telinde guided the group of about 25 - wounded soldiers, their cadre and wives - on a wild-bird hunt. On the second day, pen-raised pheasants were released and the hunters took after them.
For soldiers such as Leonard, it was a landmark moment.
"I used to hunt pheasants with my dad back home in Pennsylvania," he said. "We had a game farm five or six miles from our house and we'd hunt there.
"But this is my first time hunting pheasants in Kansas." It didn't take Leonard long to get the hang of it. When Rocky, a German shorthaired pointer, locked on point, a volunteer steered the ATV behind the bird dog and others went in to flush the pheasant.
The bird got up with a loud cackle, but its escape was cut short by Leonard's shot.
Within an hour, Leonard had added two other pheasants to the bed of the ATV.
Others found similar success. Down the line, Charles Cramer watched a bright-colored rooster flush practically at his feet and he snapped off a shot. A successful shot.
"I feel like a kid in a candy store," said Cramer, a staff s ergeant who is from Wooster, Ohio.
Cramer still has memories of a day in 2006 when he watched two friends in a vehicle die when they were hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He rushed to try and put out the fire, but was hit by shrapnel and breathed in toxic fumes.
Today, he is part of the Army's Wounded Warriors transition team, helping those who were wounded make their way back into society or the military again.
"I still have aches and pains, and I still have shrapnel in my leg," he said. "But really, I'm just happy to be alive."
© 2008, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.