Bill Kokendoffer, covered in Mossy Oak camouflage, drove through downtown Miami Friday and was moved when he saw the American flags set along the curbs.
Local American Legion members posted the flags to welcome a group of veterans to town.
“It was quite an honor to see those flags,” Kokendoffer said.
It was one more unexpected gesture that made “The Great Turkey Hunt 2008” an exemplary event, according to Kokendoffer who serves as president of the Mid-America Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“It started from the moment we arrived in Miami,” Kokendoffer said. “When we arrived at the hotel, Amanda Davis (program director for the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau) was waiting for us. She presented us with a big welcome basket of gifts … we have lacked for nothing ever since.”
Kokendoffer's organization sponsored the Miami hunt which he said was everything that it was intended to be - an event that fostered friendships and engaged paralyzed veterans in recreational activities.
Alphonso Lopez, who served as a sergeant with the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2005, was one of five hunters who participated in the event. He suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident four years ago that left him a paraplegic. However, the accident did not rob him of his competitive spirit. He set out Friday to hunt for a wild turkey for the first time in his life. He returned to a specialized blind three more times before the event closed Saturday afternoon, determined that he would be among the successful shooters.
Lopez didn't bag a turkey, but did pick up a new interest - skeet shooting.
The young veteran said he “was not good at all” when he took aim at skeet between hunts. But, he loved the new experience and plans to pick it up as a hobby.
Fellow PVA members Larry Clolinger, Rance Bighorse and David Anderson also participated in the weekend hunt. Each expressed their appreciation of the opportunity.
“It was more than what I expected,” Anderson said. “I got to meet a lot of people, made new friends … it was just a good experience and I definitely want to come back.”
Bighorse bagged the biggest bird, but Kokendoffer was the first to bring one in. In all, six birds were claimed - including one by Congressman Dan Boren who spent Friday and Saturday with the veterans.
“This is a great event,” Boren said. “What better way to say thank you to those who served our country.”
Boren said he will return to Washington, D.C., having made new friends, created good memories and carrying a renewed commitment to do all that he can on behalf of veterans.
The Great Turkey Hunt was not only an effort to provide paralyzed veterans with a unique recreational opportunity, it officially launched the PVA's Outdoor Recreation Heritage Fund, a national campaign to encourage 100,000 people to make a $20 donation. If successful, the program would become self-sustaining, according to program director Lew Deal.
Deal, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps, has been involved with the PVA for nearly a decade and said that Miami's event drew an outpouring of community support that compares to nothing he has seen.
“This is an example of a community that came together and hit all the right bases,” Deal said. “It is unique, but essential, and we can now use this example across the country … It is important to tell the story of Miami, Oklahoma.”
The local event made it known that “the heartland still cares,” according to Deal.
“It is the best medicine in the world for our disabled veterans and wounded service men,” Deal said.
Deal said Miami's story will continue as the PVA is planning a muzzle loader deer hunt in the fall and he believes it will be just as successful.
“It is refreshing to see an event where there are no egos or agendas trying to run the thing,” Deal said. “Again, (The Great Turkey Hunt) is an example that we will use across the country as we promote similar events.”
As events concluded Saturday, organizers applauded the volunteers, thanked a vast list of sponsors who provided everything hunters needed and presented Kokendoffer with a plaque adorned with the tail feathers of the first bird claimed in the turkey hunt.
He choked back his emotion as he accepted the plaque.
“There are just not enough words to say thanks for all that you have done,” Kokendoffer said. “This has been a great event. We have wanted for nothing.”
Kokendoffer said the people of Miami have made a lasting impression on him.
Jack Dalrymple and Bob Eads, who offered their homes and farms for the hunt, are already making plans for another event.
The participants, who parted ways with heartfelt handshakes and sincere promises to return to the community that embraced them, left a lasting impression on the organizers.
“They really impressed me,” Dalrymple said as he recalled the words of one young soldier whose words stirred the crowd on Saturday.
“Even with these injuries, I would still do it all over again,” Lopez said. “I would fight for this country and fight for our freedom.”