Erie group helps Veterans gather for day of bird hunting and camaraderie

HARTSTOWN (AP) — Eyeing the pile of ring-tailed pheasants and chukar partridges in front of him, Dan Stafford of Erie wondered if he had enough to edge out his brother in the sibling competition the two had waged in fields about one mile north of Hartstown on Saturday.

As it happened, his brother, Josh Stafford of Rochester, New York, had managed to lose count of how many birds he had taken.

Whether Josh Stafford’s memory slip was unlucky or suspiciously convenient was unclear, but the spirit of fraternal conviviality and good-natured competition evident between the two proved a common theme among the 19 hunters who gathered for a morning and afternoon of trap shooting and game bird hunting.

“It was a blast,” Dan Stafford said. “This week was dragging by, I was so looking forward to this. It was such a slow week — it was like counting down the days.”

Like Dan, a former military police officer in the Army, and Josh, a former Army engineer and current member of the New York National Guard, the hunters were all veterans.

Sponsored by Freedom Hunters, a Colorado-based military outreach nonprofit that arranges outdoor adventures for vets and their families, the hunt drew participants and volunteers from all over the northwestern part of the state. The Erie chapter of Pheasants Forever provided nearly a dozen bird dogs and handlers for the event. Hartstown resident Dr. Edward Osborne provided the regulated hunting grounds where the group of orange-coated hunters and dogs marched through soggy fields in search of game birds, and his neighbor Ryan Klink provided use of his home as a point of departure and location for the catered lunch that concluded the event.

Like the Staffords, the other participants found plenty of quarry, but they found just as many laughs and stories along the way.

“Any time you can get a bunch of veterans together — the camaraderie is just there, it’s like you’re still in, like you haven’t even left,” Dan Stafford said. “You can pick up right where you ended.”

The atmosphere Stafford described was precisely what Kory Slye had in mind when he organized the event. Inspired by his brother-in-law’s service in the Marines, Slye decided to use his own interest in outdoors activities and his contacts with others in the community to do something special for veterans.

“I saw the sacrifices he’s made from his family,” Slye said of his brother-in-law. “He’s done several tours and spent six to eight months away from his daughter, so I wanted to be able to give back.”

As Slye spoke, he was making his way through soggy corn fields behind a group of about seven hunters. The hunters were joined by several handlers from Pheasants Forever. In front, two Brittanys, Dasher and Cloud, trotted back and forth from one possible hiding place to another, searching for the next game bird.

Among the multigenerational group of hunters was Lee Schierer of McKean, who spent a combined 26 years in the Navy on active duty and in the reserves before retiring as a captain.

The group stopped as Cloud and Dasher suddenly stood still, pointing at a clump of brush between them.

When a flapping sound emerged from the clump, Schierer’s gun leapt to his shoulder.

His was one of several shots to ring out, but the only one to do damage.

“I didn’t hit it very hard,” Schierer said as the group urged the dogs to track down the wounded chukar. “I know that.”

As the youth pheasant hunt coordinator for Pheasants Forever, Schierer was able to draw a lesson from the split-second episode.

“I was just concentrating on the bird,” he said later. “A lot of guys try to aim shotguns — you don’t aim a shotgun, you point it.”