FORT GREELY, Alaska -- Two Soldiers, one serving and one retired, sit in a pickup truck and watch the rising sun slowly illuminate the sprawling wilderness of Fort Greely.
It is Sept. 1, the opening day of Alaska's moose hunting season. The cool morning wind gently rustles the leaves of the quaking aspen and paper birch, whispering hints of winter's inevitable arrival and subsequent stranglehold here.
The Soldiers are on high alert, looking for signs of their quarry - a slight movement in the forest, moose tracks, scat, fresh beds or antler scrapings on trees.
Generations and vastly different experiences separate these Soldiers, yet they form an easy bond, sharing jokes and trading tales along the way. Many begin with "back in my day," or "nowadays," and most end in laughter. There is good-natured ribbing by both, the product of more than 40 years of combined Army service. And there is hunting.
Together, they scout for a large bull moose to harvest as part of the Purple Heart Hunter Program held annually at Fort Greely. There were three hunters this year, and Soldiers from the 49th Missile Defense Battalion served as their chaperones.
Sgt. 1st Class Larry Martin, the acting first sergeant of Company A, 49th Missile Defense Battalion, Alaska National Guard, was paired with a veteran more than 40 years his senior.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Michael Boarland of Peters Creek, Alaska, has hunted across the world. By his own account, he doesn't move as well as he used to, thanks in part to his multiple combat wounds He is limited to riding along in the truck, save for infrequent stops to stretch his legs. Boarland, 79, pondered aloud if this will be his last hunt.
"This is the first time I've ever been taken care of on a hunt like this and it's an honor to be here," said Boarland. "I've met some people here who really care about veterans and that's a real plus with me. When I came into the Army most of my squad leaders served in World War II and the Korean War. And now these younger troops are listening to my stories."
Boarland served 31 cumulative months in Vietnam, split between tours in 1962 and 1965 and 1968-69. His final tour was cut short in 1969 due to wounds he sustained in combat. He served in the Army from 1957-1989, earning three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars - one for valor and one for meritorious service - and the Soldier's Medal.
"I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to be paired up with a younger troop and have this hunt," said Boarland. "He's taken real good care of me. I'm not able to do what I used to do, so it's real good to be here with someone who will help you out."
The DM795 permit and the Sikes Act
Boarland and two other hunters were awarded a special permit, the DM795, to moose hunt in the Delta Junction Management Area comprising Delta Junction, Fort Greely and the Donnelly Dome basin. The state of Alaska issues no more than six DM795 permits per year, available to anyone in the U.S. at no cost, but a user must meet certain criteria. Awardees must be a Purple Heart recipient with a certified 100 percent service-connected disability.
This program was implemented in 2011 by Richard Barth, the Fort Greely environmental chief. Barth explained the need to maintain and mitigate the moose population within the 7,200 acre footprint of Fort Greely.
Fort Greely also must comply with the Sikes Act, a conservation mandate that states if the federal government has land where recreational opportunities can be made available to the public, then the Department of Defense needs to make those opportunities available as long as they don't interfere with training and mission. However, the strategic mission of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion and the assets located at Fort Greely posed challenges in complying with the Sikes Act.
"We can't just let everyone run around here willy-nilly," said Barth. "So, how I meet the Sikes Act and my moose mitigation requirement was to have a moose hunt with 100 percent disabled Purple Heart veterans, because I knew they all had ID cards. So I was able to hit two birds with one stone.
"I've got 70 head of resident moose within the habitat," said Barth. "Because there's no open hunting on post, Fort Greely becomes somewhat of a sanctuary area. This poses a number of problems. Cow moose can become separated from their calves by fencing. Moose can die of dehydration because there are limited water sources for them. So we provide the water now and we manage the moose, but in an effort to keep the moose out the garrison and housing area, we started hunting them."
Since 2012, Purple Heart hunters have had a 100 percent success rate hunting bull moose, Barth said.
Just Killin' Time
Moose, the Alaskan state mammal, are the largest member of the deer family and can range in size from 800 pounds to nearly 2,000 pounds and are easily recognized by their antlers, carried by males only.
According the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, there are approximately 175,000-200,000 head of moose in Alaska, with at least 7,000 harvested annually within the hunting season of Sept. 1-15. While there are many moose within the Delta Junction Management Area, most are not "shooters." The DM795 hunting permit prohibits taking calves, or cows accompanied by calves. This leaves a handful of bull moose, most of which are too immature and underdeveloped to be considered.
Trophy-class bull moose are defined by large, wide antlers and typically range in age from 10 to 12 years old. The two other hunters as part of this year's Purple Heart Hunt were successful in harvesting large bull moose.
Boarland and Martin, on the other hand, saw many moose during their hunt, but Boarland has not taken a shot. He's after a true trophy bull with antlers as wide or wider than 60 inches. Boarland will continue to hunt the area through Sept. 15, or until he sees a bull moose he would like to harvest, whichever comes first.
"I just like to be out here, just killin' time," said Boarland. "Being out here and seeing everything and how beautiful it is is a great experience. If I shoot, I shoot. If I don't, I don't. I'm just as happy shooting the breeze."
"It's 100 percent their hunt," said Martin. "We make sure they're taken care of and give them opportunities to hunt. We'll hunt with them dawn to dusk. If they see something they like, we'll do everything we can to help them get it."
Boarland said he has formed a memorable friendship with Martin, and will cherish the memory of their time together.
"Some of our conversations are not rated for public, shall we say," Boarland said with a laugh, "but most of our conversations have been about hunting and our service. It's good to see what kind of troops we got now. Some of his views are 180 degrees different from mine, but our interactions have been nothing but positive.
"Anybody who's fortunate enough to come out with these folks, it's a once in a lifetime experience," said Boarland, "and I'll treasure the memory."