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Hunters with physical challenges inspire warden

Warden Shaun Deeney of Black River Falls, center, joins the two hunters with the missing doe in Jackson County on Thanksgiving morning. James Legrand is on Deeney's left and Jeff Rhode is on the right. WDNR photo.

BLACK RIVER FALLS - It was before dawn when Shaun Deeney joined fellow Warden Supervisor Ron Cork of Fort McCoy for a day of deer hunting patrol in Jackson County. It was cold - a fact that would prove helpful with the first stop on this sixth day of the 2011 gun-deer season.

First stop? A two-track road in Jackson County not far from Black River Falls. Instead of driving into the woods, Deeney and Cork opted to park and hike in to check on the hunters trying their luck before most of them take in the Green Bay Packers game and a hot holiday meal. Not the wardens, though, they were in for the full hunting day.

Deeney and Cork soon came upon a truck parked in the two-track road. In its back window was a "Disabled Hunter" placard. In the back of the truck, the wardens spotted a metal walker with wheels.

"Just off to the right, we could see some orange about one-hundred yards into a sparse pine plantation," Deeney said. "I saw one hunter leaning on some crutches."

The wardens met Jeff Rhode of Black River Falls, a U.S. Army veteran who served in combat during the Vietnam War. During a training exercise in Germany, Rhode broke his back that left him permanently disabled. He is only able to walk with the aid of crutches. Rhode was with his friend, James Legrand of Illinois. Legrand cannot hear but can read lips and uses some sign language.

The two men told the wardens they were back in the area they hunted the day before in search of a doe shot by Rhode. "James, Ron and I started making circles and walked farther and farther out," Deeney said. "About a half-hour later, I could tell that Jeff was becoming fatigued from searching. I saw him sit up against a tree and take a break. He didn't say anything. But I could see the look on his face."

Deeney knew how it felt to shoot and harvest an animal, but then not be able to find it. "It's a helpless feeling."

The wardens had to press on to continue their patrol. Deeney got Rhode's cell phone and pledged to call if they spotted it. "Ron and I both said we were just hoping and praying for us to find the animal for him."

As they headed for the warden truck parked down the two-track road, Cork turned and said: "Hey, is that a deer?"

Sure enough, Deeney said, that was the doe. "It was probably a couple hundred yards from where Jeff shot from. It was hit perfectly. But, for some reason there wasn't a blood trail," said Deeney, who became a warden with the Colorado Division of Wildlife in 1999 before joining the Wisconsin warden force in June 2010 . "I was very excited to be able to call Jeff."

Rhode and Legrand were there not long after the call. Legrand got out of the truck, smiled at the wardens and motioned his fingers up and down just below his eyes to signify tears. "I looked over at Jeff and I could see he was just about to shed a tear of joy," Deeney said.

Deeney and Cork helped the two hunters field dress the animal and get it into the truck.

"I felt honored to be with true sportsmen like Jeff. This was someone who desperately wanted to find his animal - not to brag or gloat but to make sure it wasn't going to waste," Deeney said, adding the cold temperatures helped save the meat during the night. "Here is a guy who could've shot from his vehicle because he is disabled and has the authority to do that. But instead, he walked into the woods like any other hunter, set up his own stick blind and hunted.

"Jeff truly understands the hunting heritage and what it means. This really made Thanksgiving for me because I could help someone like Jeff. It reminded me why I decided to become a warden in the first place."