RIPLEY, W.Va. (BP) – “He was sent our way out of Florida. On suicide watch, he’d lost some buddies in Iraq. He was scarred and broken by it. Didn’t want to talk.”
Frank Miller remembers Tim, a young man whose friends had encouraged him to attend the hunt sponsored by the Jackson County Hunting Heroes (JCHH). The ministry, hosted out of Parchment Valley Conference Center and the West Virginia Baptist Convention, began in December 2013 with a desire to help veterans heal and honor their wartime service through time in nature. It also brought time alongside others with similar stories and hearing of a Savior who loves them unconditionally.
While the WVBC is a non-Southern Baptist entity, many churches affiliated with the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists participate in JCHH and other events at Parchment Valley. In addition, The Summit Camp, a student gathering sponsored by the WVCSB, will take place there this summer.
“We couldn’t do this without our partnership with Southern Baptists,” Miller stressed. “Kenova First Baptist Church has its leadership training here and is heavily involved in Hunting Heroes. Their chef is going to come over and cook at one of our events coming up.”
A friend of Tim’s knew about the ministry and recommended he take a trip to the Mountain State. By the end of his stay, Miller and others witnessed a change.
“We saw the results and knew we were on the right track [with the ministry] Miller said in a recent interview. The experience made such an impact on Tim that he wanted to move to the area. These days he’s willing to talk, Miller added, “but now he wants to talk about Jesus.”
Since then, approximately 120 veterans – men and women – of conflicts ranging from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan have made the trip to Jackson County, located on the Allegheny Plateau and the Ohio border. Its remote location, forested hills and rich Ohio River bottomland have made it one of the state’s top spots for deer hunting. Many of the veterans who have visited, Miller said, have found ultimate peace through Christ, but also through fellowship with others, whether that be at the dinner table or in the woods.
Many conversations turn spiritual. Prayer takes place at every meal and speakers through the JCHH share their testimony.
“This started as a way to honor veterans. We had the facility out here to do something, so we did,” said Miller, who has worked with the West Virginia Baptist Convention for more than 40 years.
A veteran’s time at the conference center typically begins on a Thursday before a weekend hunt. At that time, he or she meets with a guide and they build a relationship. Later, they go to the gun range.
This is when a veteran’s mental and emotional status becomes clearer. Muzzleloaders – rifles where ammunition is loaded through the muzzle one round at a time – are used instead of semi- or automatic rifles. Most get even more excited about the hunt after time at the range. But it’s not uncommon, Miller said, for others to fire one shot and realize that was plenty. Instead of taking part in the hunt, they enjoy the rest of their time at Parchment Valley eating, laughing and sharing stories with others.
Those stories come from service in conflict as well as other times. Vince, a guest from Columbus, Ohio, told Miller of being stationed on the Marshall Islands during nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s.
“He said at 2 a.m. the Pacific Ocean would still be boiling from the tests,” said Miller, whose time as a sergeant in the Air Force included peacetime service in Korea from 1979-80.
In another test, Vince and others were on the field and instructed by their commanders standing nearby to keep their heads down for 10 seconds after the explosion. However, Vince couldn’t help himself and looked up for a split second.
“He told me he could see his commander outlined by the light and then he could actually see the commander’s bones outlined in the flash like an x-ray, it was that bright,” Miller said. “He pulled his hat down immediately and started counting to 10.”
Memories and experiences like Vince’s have a way of sticking, even decades later. The circumstances that built them also construct a brotherhood among veterans.
Vince, who had never hunted before, became a repeat visitor at Parchment Valley. He battled three rounds of cancer before losing to a fourth. Toward the end, he told Miller that he’d been told his blood type had even changed due to radiation exposure.
Jackson County Hunting Heroes began with a $10 charge on Miller’s credit card to register the ministry with the state. Then Ripley VFW Post 5501 stepped up with a $10,000 check for support. Over the years, various landowners have donated the use of 12,000 acres and all-terrain vehicles to make sure veterans in wheelchairs can get to their hunting spot.
“This county has one clique, and it’s to honor our men and women in uniform and uphold the Word of God,” Miller said. “It’s a very patriotic area.”
West Virginia ranks 7th in the country in veterans per capita with nearly 8 percent, according to Politifact. Jackson County has one of the state’s densest veteran populations.
From 2017-2018, the last year figures are available, the average number of veteran suicides per day rose slightly from 17.5 to 17.6. That is according to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report released in December by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
For Miller, even one veteran suicide is one too many. The transition back to civilian life cannot be fully appreciated by those who haven’t experienced it, he said.
“We want to help those veterans in that time,” he said. “Our intent is to restore their trust in themselves, in their families, in their communities and to grow closer in their relationship with the Lord. We want to bring back their self-value.”
The ministry also helps veterans navigate paperwork to receive their medals and VA benefits. In addition, the Parchment Valley Conference Center has undergone changes to become more handicap-accessible such as adding ramps and extending doorways.
West Virginia’s Disabled American Veterans installed a chair lift for free. The community, local businesses and other donors have also provided additions such as a coffee and snack area as well as a couch and large TV. The Ripley High School shop class built and donated a six-by-12-foot oak table “that’ll be here 100 years,” Miller said.
Future plans include expanding opportunities for trout fishing and other outings. Brothers’ Keeper, a community missions outreach, will take place June 20-25. The Critter Dinner, a fundraiser attended by as many as 500, will make a return post-COVID with its usual menu including halibut, elk, pheasant, deer, bear and rattlesnake. Miller is particularly fond of the bobcat tenderloin.
The natural aesthetics of the outdoors is a main draw for veterans and guests, he said. But it’s impossible to overstate the small victories that happen through conversation in the woods, around a grill, at a table or fishing from the bank of one of the lakes.
“When we bring those men and women in, they begin to share stories, and it becomes therapy,” Miller said. “They open up and we see this transformation begin.”