PROSPERITY, SC (WIS) - "I can get more connected when I'm out in nature than I can with anything else."
For a man who spent his entire life hunting deer, elk, boar and mountain lion, access to the wilderness means everything. Especially for a man who survived the Vietnam War.
"It's a wonderful feeling to be able to be out in the wilderness and be able to experience the hunting experience again."
Vietnam Special Forces veteran Darrel Gray was among the first to try out four new track wheelchairs donated to the Freedom and Hope Foundation in Prosperity. A spinal cord injury contains him to a wheelchair.
"I hunted all my life and then when I had the spinal cord injury and all, you know, I felt like my hunting was over," he said. "And I was part of some real traumatic things from Vietnam and all, but when I got the ability to use these track chairs and things like that, where you could get back out into the wild and hunt again, it's just my nature. So it's a blessing to be able to do it."
The Freedom and Hope Foundation was founded by Terry Cotney, who wanted to show his gratitude to America's heroes by taking them hunting and fishing.With the help of community donations, his Newberry County hunting camp hosts veterans and kids with special needs.
"It's very exciting to serve God and country at the same time," Cotney said.
"I do this for this guy right here," he said, turning to Gray. "I do it for the guys like him."
The Foundation received the track chairs from the Hotes Foundation, worth about $15,000 each. They are all-terrain wheelchairs that give better access to the wooded areas where game roam.
Iraq War veteran and Marine Ace Cruz says he feels more secure in the chair.
"You can go anyplace, wherever you want with this and it gives you more freedom to do anything that you want to do, even fishing and hunting." he said.
"It just takes so much of the impairment away because you can get out through the woods and navigate around," said Gray. "Get out to the remote places you need to be, in comfort."
The track chairs make it easier for hunters to get into deer stands, which give them a better perspective for hunting.
"When you're up this high, it just give you such a tremendous opportunity and visual point and its safer, as well," Gray said. It was the first time he had been inside a deer stand since his injury.
"I forgot what it's like," he said.
"He feels like a real man again," Cotney said. "Like a real hunter. It's just another miracle that I've seen happen here with our foundation."
The Freedom and Hope Foundation hosts memorial hunts throughout the year. Just about every weekend, Cotney hosts to veterans, active duty personnel, wounded warriors and kids with special needs. The new chairs open up the hunting possibilities.
"We have the means now to take these guys out and not only in hunts during the weekend, we'll take them out during the week," Cotney said. "This gives these guys the independence to go out on their own."
Every hunt, ever visitor, touches Cotney.
"When I meet these guys I want them to come back so bad," he said.
And the guests touch each other.
"You can't say you know how somebody feels unless you've felt it yourself so that gives me a special opportunity to be able to share with them because basically there's -- I don't think there's much that they haven't been -- haven't been through that I haven't been through."
"I'm thankful for Mr. Cotney for inviting me here," Cruz said. "It's very rare to find the people like that, and especially nowadays and they cater to the veterans, which is -- that's a big plus for this organization."
And as Cruz reeled in a catfish from Cotney's farm pond, he said with a laugh, "Semper Fi."
Every dollar donated to the Freedom and Hope Foundation goes to its programs. Donations of all types are welcome. Click here for more information about the Foundation and to see photos of the hunters.