Locals lead effort to get injured veterans into outdoors

Scott Swanson

On a not-so-dark night just before Halloween, Mark Worley and Timm Gunderson hunkered down in a blind in a Southern Oregon vineyard, loaded for bear.


They’d been there for several nights, hunting a bruin that was causing havoc to a winery outside of Cave Junction, gorging on wine grapes – which is why they were hunting in the light of the moon.

“They come in and they just ravage the grapes, scarf them down,” Gunderson said. “For the winery, they’re competing with that because they want to get the grapes harvested as much as possible. Once they cross that fence, they become a predator and not a game animal.”

Worley and Gunderson were also there through the auspices of an effort engineered by local hunters, headed by Mike Martell of Sweet Home.

Both are Army infantry veterans who were selected for the hunt by Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation. Established in 2007, WWIA is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization headquartered in Apollo Beach, Fla. that focuses on serving combat-wounded, Purple Heart recipients by providing world-class outdoor sporting activities. It is not part of the Wounded Warrior Project, which has a wider focus.

WWIA’s goals are to get wounded veterans into the outdoors to promote healing, increase self-reliance and bolster self-confidence.

Martell said most of the organization’s activity took place in the East Coast before he and other West Coast outdoorsmen got interested.

Martell said he had already been involved for several years in providing hunting and fishing experiences for the disabled, primarily through hunting trips to British Columbia with Versus TV host Tred Barta.

After Barta’s show, “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta,” was cancelled after nine seasons, Martell said he and others who had been involved had discussed what other opportunities were out there for such efforts.

“One of the things we came up with was ‘Why not do something for our military,’” he said. “I had accidentally discovered Wounded Warriors in Action. They deal very explicitly with Purple Heart vets, they have to be injured in combat. They do fishing trips, hunting trips. They were exactly what we were looking for.”

Their first West Coat hunt, for black bear in B.C. in 2013, was televised by Noslers Magnum TV and featured Sgt. Major Pat Corcoran of Florida, who was injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2009.

The publicity generated by that effort has resulted in a West Coast affiliate, based in Concrete, Wash.

It also aroused interest locally, in the Fern Ridge Tree Hound Club, of which Martell is vice president.

“We’re about the preservation of the sport of hunting and mentoring youth,” he said of the 40-some-year-old group, which meets the first Tuesday of each month at James Gang Pizza in Lebanon.

Martell grew up in the Liberty area and has lived most of his life in Sweet Home, graduating from Sweet Home High School in 1975.

He didn’t serve in the military himself.

“Back in 1975, on my 18th birthday, I went in to register, but there was no conflict. The Vietnam era came to a close. So I dodged it, but not by design.”

A hunter all his life, he spent time as a “professional” bear and cougar hunter, something he incorporates in his present employment as a wine grape vineyard manager in southern Oregon, where he oversees five ranches – a profession he’s pursued for 31 years.

Part of his responsibility is “predator management,” by necessity, he said.

Turkeys, bears, deer and gray foxes, in particular, enjoy wine grapes, sometimes to excess, he said.

“I have certain management objectives and when I have certain animals that cross the line and do significant damage, I have to take care of that. It’s not about harvest. It’s about management. I’m like a police officer.”

He said he deals with 10 to 20 bears – “300 to 400 bear incidents in a season.”

He always opts for non-lethal control unless there’s no hope.

An interesting thing about predatory bears is that in 31 years, Martell said, he has never had to handle a predatory female bear.

“I’ve never had any reason to. Only the boars are culprits. They’re like the guys at the bar, keeping everybody else away.”

The boar Worley shot had 40 pounds of wine grapes in his stomach and 75 pounds of fat.

“I’d say that bear was 15 years old, judging by his teeth. He weighed right about 400 pounds,” Martell said. “I’d had this bear on my trail cameras for the last two years. He changed from a phase color to a black bear. I was able to identify him because he had a split ear.”

Gunderson, 39, of Rainier, Wash., was “racked out” by a car bomb in Iraq in 2011 and was forced to take medical retirement. WWIA sent him on a halibut fishing trip to Alaska in March of 2014 and he got interested in working with the organization. Since last year he’s served as a WWIA associate, working as an intermediary between hunt hosts and the veteran recipients.

“I make sure the veteran is comfortable and knows what’s going on,” he said. “I answer questions and make sure he knows the schedule. I make sure the host knows what limitations and disabilities there are, so we’re not trying to push (the veteran) beyond what he can do.”

Worley, who lives an hour north of Gunderson in Federal Way, Wash., sustained severe injuries in an IED explosion that severed his right leg at the knee. He wears a prosthetic.

Gunderson said he and Worley spent several days “spotting and stalking” in Cave Junction.

“We saw a sow and a cub, but Mike said no shooting female bears,” he said. Then they found fresh bear scat in a vineyard and a hole in the fence, through which their bear of interest had obviously entered. They set trail cams, which recorded a big male slipping through the hole, so they positioned a blind in the grapevines and waited, staying two extra days. It became obvious that this bruin wasn’t going to be predictable. Sightings on the trail cams ranged from 9:30 p.m. to 2:30 in the morning.

It was tricky, sitting out there night after night.

“The shadows play tricks on your eyes. You think you see a shadow move – ‘Is that it?’ You pull out the binos. No.”

On the last day, the two slept in, preparing for a long night.

“We said, ‘We’re going to stay out there till daylight, if need be.”

At 9:45, in intermittent moonlight and light drizzle, the bear appeared, about 40 yards away from their blind.

“We thought we’d hear him come in, from the size of the hole, but he didn’t make a sound. I thought I saw a shadow move. I whispered to Mark and the bear turned toward us. Mark said, ‘Yep, it’s him. I’m going to hit him.’ He got him in one shot.”

Martell said the bear and buck will be mounted for the veterans through donations from Research Mannikins in Lebanon and Sewell’s Taxidermy. Other area businesses that contributed to the hunt were Cabela’s in Springfield and Armstrong Contract Cutting, which donated a rifle that was raffled off in a fund-raiser. The hunt was videotaped by Faith in the Field, a Salem-based organization that provides outdoor experiences for youths.

Martell said that he’s delighted to have this year’s veterans hail from Washington, following recipients from Florida and Klamath Falls. The goal, he said, is to find even more local participants.

“This is a great program,” he said. “Now we’re home. From 2013, in just two years, we’re home. That’s where we wanted to be. It’s pretty cool. Now I’d like to see more involvement from the local Vets Club, from local folks.

“Every vet has made a sacrifice for our country. Purple Heart vets should have top priority, but I think all veterans should have an opportunity.”

He said he already has some leads on veterans who live locally or are related to local residents, whom he is pursuing.

Gunderson, who said he has spent most of his time since the hunt processing meat, also came away with a forked-horn buck. But, he said, he also came away with friendship.

“It was a blast,” he said, noting that, in addition to Worley, a friend of Martell’s who volunteered to help, Joe Jackson of Sweet Home, was also a former infantryman.

“He was just giving back to fellow brothers in arms, for the most part,” Gunderson said.

“We got to talk to fellow infantrymen from an earlier time. It was camaraderie. We made friendships that I think will last for years to come. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s easier to trust fellow comrades in war.”

That’s what WWIA is about, he said.

“I have my injuries. I stay on my five acres. I really don’t leave.

“This gets me back into what I used to love to do – hunting and fishing. It helps me find some kind of normalcy after the chaos of war.”