Creating an event that honors the state’s military, raises money for the fight against cancer and incorporates the North American Model of Conservation on the very land where Theodore Roosevelt lived and hunted has not been an easy task. But, those involved in founding Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt were up to the challenge.
Now, four years after the first annual hunting event was held in western North Dakota, 44 military members have been honored through a weekend of hunting and camaraderie. And, more than $100,000 has been raised for the Bismarck Cancer Center Foundation.
It was more than five years ago that Roger Krueger, a former American Cancer Society staff executive and current president of the Great Plains Benefit Group, began to think about how he could combine several of his passions into an event honoring and supporting two special groups of North Dakotans, those who serve in the military and those battling cancer.
“When I was working for the American Cancer Society we had amazing fundraising protocols and state-of-the-art equipment, tests and treatments. But behind the scenes, there was so little we could do for the patients directly,” says Krueger. He was always thinking of how to meet the needs of the patients beyond just a medical focus.
“I also have an extraordinary passion for patriotism and the people who have given me my freedom,” he notes. “When soldiers come back, some of them are not the person they were before. What are we doing for them?”
He began planning an event to raise money for the Bismarck Cancer Center that also honors the military, and incorporates his third interest. “I also have a passion for hunting and shooting sports and preserving the bond between sportsmen and landsmen,” notes the long-time hunter education instructor.
But Krueger knew he needed to get others involved in order to make this idea a reality. “You magnify your efforts through other people,” he says. He shared his idea with Jon Hanson, a retired North Dakota Army National Guard colonel and current North Dakota Game and Fish hunter education coordinator. The two soon set out to bring the event to life.
“At that time, I thought ‘okay, we can do this for a year,’ and now we are on round four,” says Hanson. “I don’t think we realized how special this event was going to be.”
The two began to find sponsors along with landowners, master huntsmen and military personnel willing to participate. “Each dinner sponsor invites a deployed, returned soldier as a guest,” says Krueger.
They also looked for farmers and ranchers willing to let us use their land. “That first year we got three farmers to trust us,” says Krueger.
In 2008, the event hosted five hunting teams, with 10 Army and Air National Guard members participating. “Our goal for this year is to have 14 hunting teams,” Hanson notes. “But, the number of military participants is dependent on the number of sponsorships.”
The landsmen willing to participate have also grown, with 30 farmers volunteering this year. “The sportsmen-landsmen relationship is certainly alive and well,” Krueger says.
The group has been joined by Tweed Roosevelt, the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, who travels from Massachusetts to North Dakota nearly every year for the state’s hunting season. In 2010 Ted McKnight, former Kansas City Chiefs running back, also participated.
Hanson says Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt came together successfully because it impacts a large percentage of North Dakotans. “It just all fit together. Everyone has been affected directly or indirectly by cancer, and by the sacrifices the military have made.”
A Lasting Impact
The weekend provides a lasting impact as it honors the military returned from deployment, supports patients battling cancer, thanks landowners, volunteers and sponsors and builds camaraderie among a group of connected individuals.
The events begin with a Friday night banquet and social at the Bismarck Elks Club.
Early the next morning the teams travel to western North Dakota to hunt. The day concludes with a banquet in Medora to honor the landowners and volunteers. On Sunday the teams again hunt together and then travel back to Bismarck, where the weekend wraps up with a grilled lunch.
The hunting teams have had great success, meeting their pheasant limits almost every time they have walked the fields. “Each year has been a safe, productive, and miracle-filled hunt,” Krueger says.
Both Krueger and Hanson were surprised by the response they received after the first year. “The whole event is based on thanking the military members for their service and instead they spent the whole weekend thanking us for this opportunity,” says Hanson.
“An amazing thing happened,” adds Krueger. “After the first year, the soldiers asked how they could help.” So, the event now includes a Military Attaché program to allow past military participants to return as volunteers. They drive the participants, provide water and snacks during the hunt, prepare meals in the field, and dress the birds to take home.
Major Donovan Blazek of the North Dakota National Guard was a participant in the first Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt. He says he was drawn to the event because of its focus on both the military and the fight against cancer. “I’ve had family members who have battled cancer and it really touches home with me,” he says.
Deployed from December 2003 to February 2005, Blazek says the event helped him to reconnect with other veterans. “A lot of soldiers don’t get together and talk about their deployment,” he says. “Everyone fights the war over there, but they are also fighting when they get home. This was a great opportunity to get together and talk about life after deployment.”
“From that experience as a participant,” Blazek notes. “I asked how I could be of assistance.” He joined the planning committee and has served as a liaison to the military. “Now it is about just being there, talking with participants and watching them enjoy the weekend.”
As a committee member, he says the banquets are a significant part. “I feel immense pride in honoring the military, cancer survivors and sponsors,” says Blazek. “That really encompasses all the reasons we are there.”
Leland Johnson, a farmer near New England, along with his son, has provided his land to Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt hunting teams every year. “My wife has had cancer and that made it even more important to our family to do this.”
Johnson says based on the thank-you cards he receives, he knows the event has a lasting impact. “They really enjoy the chance to get away, to be with other veterans and forget about everything else for a weekend.”
Krueger and Hanson also receive letters conveying the impact of Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt. “One in particular from an Army National Guard specialist tells of how he was injured three times by an IED and, because of this, carried tremendous despair,” says Krueger. “After attending the first night, he sat down and wept because he realized he wasn’t alone and other people were experiencing the same feelings and thoughts as he was.”
“That letter conveyed what a lot of the military felt, and how much this helps them get back into civilian life again,” notes Hanson. “This becomes part of the soldiers’ healing process after deployment and injury.”
It also becomes a part of the healing process for cancer patients through the money raised for the Bismarck Cancer Center Foundation, says Krueger. “The funds provide fully furnished apartments at $15 per night for patients and their families staying in Bismarck for treatment,” says Krueger. “And if patients can’t pay for the apartments, the Foundation covers all of their costs.”
In 2010, 1,400 nights of lodging were provided to cancer patients, with 25 percent of those nights free of cost. The Foundation also provides gas cards to patients driving to Bismarck, with that amount bolstered by a generous matching donation from Tesoro.
The Bismarck Cancer Center is also able to employ a chaplain and social worker due to funds raised by Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt. “This is the magic that is happening as a result of this event,” says Krueger. “I am fiercely proud of it.”
Becoming a Part of the Event
Military personnel mobilized for more than 30 days after September 11, 2001, are eligible to participate. North Dakota National Guard soldiers are sent letters to submit a registration online. These applications are then reviewed by the planning committee, and soldiers of various ranks are chosen.
All participants must have hunter education if born after December 31, 1961, and a valid hunting license. Support opportunities are available for individuals and businesses, ranging from sponsoring military participants and hunting events to socials, equipment and supplies. In 2010, there were 23 sponsors. “Over the years, people have learned who we are and what we are doing,” says Hanson of the continued growth and interest in Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt.
Krueger says that as Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt has grown, so has its impact. “We started out to give our participants the hunt of a lifetime, but I think we may have given them a bit more.”
The 2011 Hunting Dakota with Roosevelt event is scheduled for October 14-16. For additional information visit www.huntingdakotawithroosevelt.com.