In 2003, Jeff Pcola's life changed forever. While stationed in Iraq, he was a passenger in a vehicle that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Seneca, S.C., resident broke his neck and three vertebrae in his lower back, dislocated his hip, lost the use of his left foot, and endured extensive nerve damage. The 47-year-old now lives in pain every day and has lost most of his mobility.
For Bobby Harrell of Hendersonville, it was an accident in 1993 that left him permanently disabled. While showing his children how to rope swing into a pond, Harrell landed in the shallow water and broke his neck. Today, as a quadriplegic, he is permanently restricted to a wheelchair.
Tom Ulmer of Lexington broke his back in a motorcycle accident; he's now a paraplegic. Steve Avinger of Conway suffered a spinal chord injury 22 years ago and gets around in wheelchair. Charles Pettigrew of Columbia is 100 percent disabled after 31 years of military service, and a car accident in 2001 left John Sparger of Ladson permanently confined to a wheelchair.
Aside from their injuries, these men all have one other thing in common: a passion for deer hunting. Now, with the help of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and others, hunting is once again a part of their lives.
Nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service held a mobility-impaired deer hunt at the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge in Hollywood, S.C. After the hunt, several attendees approached Gerald Moore, a wildlife biologist at the DNR, about hosting more events like this across the state. And so, in 1995, the DNR hosted their first-ever mobility-impaired hunt. In its inaugural year, the outing had 11 applicants, nine of whom actually made it to the event. The group killed four deer. Last year, 140 hunters participated in hunts at 43 different sites, bringing home a total of 46 deer.
According to Tom Ulmer, who works with the S.C. Disabled Sportsmen Association, these events attract hunters whose severity of injury varies. "Everyone from amputees to men walking with crutches as well as people in wheelchairs are allowed to go to these hunts," he says.
Pcola went on his first mobility-impaired excursion this past December, and he says that the gathering "was a very nice thing." Although not all of the conditions were ideal, Pcola is looking forward to this year's hunts.
John Sparger appreciates the outlet. "It means a lot to me," he says, "and I think they should do more." That said, Sparger believes the criteria for who can and cannot take place should be a bit stricter."I think [the hunts] should be for people who need them, not for somebody that has a walking cane and limps up to the site," he adds.
Aside from ones put on by the DNR in Laurens, Newberry, Cherokee, Spartanburg, and Union counties last year, there were seven other mobility-impaired deer hunts throughout the state organized by both federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as well as a great deal of private landowners.
Charles Pettigrew, who has been on about five hunts, praises both the organizations that sponsor the events and the landowners who offer up their property. "They go overboard to help us out, and I think it's a wonderful thing that the DNR and the Forest Service are doing," he says. "The landowners give up their land for us to hunt, and they don't have to do that."
This year, the DNR's first hunt will take place the weekend of Oct. 26, with the second one scheduled for the following weekend, Nov. 2. While applications are not yet available, interested hunters can find an array of information on DNR's website.
For Steve Avinger, who has been on every hunt with the exception of the very first in 1995, it doesn't matter if he brings home a deer or not for a hunt to be successful. For him, they are about a sense of togetherness. "It's a terrific opportunity for anyone with a disability to enjoy the outdoors and share some fellowship and camaraderie with people with very similar circumstances," he says.