Among the dozens of hunters who visited Gateway Variety in Ashland on Monday morning, one had a story to share that was less about moose and more about life. It was a tale of tragedy, recovery and appreciation. And as Zachary Stinson explained, it’s a story he feels he has learned can make a difference to others.
Stinson is a direct, friendly 28-year-old who drove 15 hours from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to take part in his own hunt of a lifetime.
Hours after pulling the trigger, Stinson was still excited, eagerly describing the hunt a group of locals helped set up for him.
Among them were Paul House of House in the Woods in Lee, who hosted Stinson and helped call in the moose; Dan Aiken, who arranged for the use of a camp; Deane Smith, who provided the actual hunting opportunity, by making Stinson his sub-permit holder.
House in the Woods provides outdoor recreational opportunities for active military personnel, veterans and their families, free of charge.
The hunt wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy. But it was an experience that Stinson — make that retired Marine Corps Sgt. Stinson — will remember forever.
Leap back seven years, and the prospect of Stinson embarking on an adventure of this sort was a longshot — at best.
“I was in Marjah, Afghanistan,” Stinson said, softly, telling a story he has told dozens of times since that day. “We were doing a battle assessment on a village. I was the squad leader. As we approached the village, I stopped my guys that I had out front, and I told them I would take it from there and walk us in.”
A wall stretched the length of a village. Stinson went over the wall alone, with his team supporting him from the rear. Then things went very badly.
“I couldn’t have been 10 yards from that wall when I stepped down with my left leg and boom,” Stinson said.
The detonation of the improvised explosive device folded him in half, and he found himself looking at the ground, with his face on his hands. He couldn’t move.
“[My corpsman] rushed to the wall and said, ‘He’s dead,’” Stinson said. “I screamed back, ‘I’m not dead!’”
He was, however, severely injured. Although he never lost consciousness on the flight to a hospital, he eventually was put into a medically induced coma. Six days later, he woke up in Bethesda, Maryland.
His legs were gone. His hands were wounded. And he had some decisions to make.
That, he says now, wasn’t part of the plan.
“This,” he said, motioning at his wheelchair, “wasn’t an option for me [when I was in Afghanistan]. I was either coming home in a box or coming home whole. There was no halfway, in-between.”
Then, there was. Stinson said he remembers lying in bed two weeks after the incident, trying to come to terms with the road ahead of him. And just two weeks into his recovery, he made a decision.
“I was kind of angry and trying to figure it out,” he said. “It just came to me: The world’s going to keep turning. And in all honesty, it doesn’t really care about me. So I can sit back and be angry about it and be miserable, but the world’s going to keep moving and I’m just going to be angry.”
“So I was like, ‘I’ll just keep moving with it.’ I kind of accepted it,” Stinson said. “And now I have this opportunity. That’s the way I see it. God saved me for a reason. I get to share my story with everybody.”
Standing around the pickup truck that held the moose he shot earlier in the day, Aiken and Smith and House waited for the veteran to finish telling the story.
The moose, if you’re curious, weighed in at 860 pounds, and had an antler spread of 46½ inches. Stinson credited the efforts of his new friends and said he couldn’t have done it without them.
Of course, sometimes a moose story isn’t about the moose at all.
Seven years removed from the worst day of his life, Stinson understands that. Yes, he went hunting Monday and had a great time filling his moose tag. But the trip to Maine was worth far more than that.
He got to shake a few more hands, you see. He got to tell his stories. And he got to nod his head silently as grown men got misty-eyed and thanked him for his service.
“So who’s to say there’s not somebody that I can touch, or that I can help because they hear what I went through and [I might] be able to change their lives?” Stinson asked. “There’s a reason for everything.”
Then he paused for a moment.
“And I don’t consider it a negative,” he said, describing that day and what happened to him in a far-off land. “I’m still here.”