Hunting for the brotherhood

Joe, a veteran who doesn't want his last name published because of his Army work, walks to his blind before a hunt in Harrison County. Joe suffered a traumatic brain injury that forced him to be medically retired. The Licking River Outfitters gives disabled veterans and wounded soldiers an opportunity to hunt free of charge.

Robin Gassett’s lodge has more than 50 mounted animal trophies, antlers, animal skins and flags. But what stands out is the hundreds of patches from various military groups. 

Robin has been a hunter his whole life. He has hunted game all over the United States, as well as in Africa. Retiring to his 40-plus acres in Harrison County, Robin wanted to supplement his income by leading guided hunts. After a year of that, he was asked to guide a 14-year-old with spina bifida who used a wheelchair. 

Despite the challenges, Robin stepped up. The hunt went well, and Robin realized that with his skills as a hunter and his property he could provide an opportunity for others like that teen.

He founded Licking River Outfitters, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping wounded soldiers, disabled veterans and critically ill or disabled youth go on hunts free of charge. Normally, a weekend hunt costs at least $2,000. Now, veterans from all over the country come to Robin's property for three-day weekend hunts.

"We never turn anybody away," he says. "I mean, we can't overbook our hunts, but we never turn anybody away because we don't think they are able enough to hunt. We've carried a lot of terminally ill. We've carried blind hunters. We've carried quadriplegics, lots of paraplegics, amputees."

Robin does his best to accommodate all veterans. 

"We've had people here that honestly didn't think that they were capable of hunting, and we always say, 'No, if you want to hunt, We'll take you hunting,' and we would get them hunting somehow," Robin says.

But it is not all about hunting. It is about rekindling the brotherhood and memories of their military careers. The hunters tell stories, complain and laugh about their time in the military — an experience they seldom repeat.

Some of Robin's volunteers come year after year to help get everything ready. Tom Brannon first came to hunt on Robin’s farm in 2011. Since then, he has volunteered every year. 

Tom was struggling with his own issues and was in a low place at the time. Robin recognized what Tom was going through and invited him back. Returning to volunteer helped Tom slowly come out of his darkness. Now Tom tries to do that for others.

"You're sitting in that blind looking at that sunrise, you're going to relax, you're going to de-stress," Tom says. "You've got three days here, that what's going on back home ... it doesn't matter here. You're going to bond with some brothers, you're going to have a good time. You're not alone anymore."

Hunters and volunteers gather for dinner after an evening of hunting at the lodge. The lodge provides meals and accomadations free of cost for the hunters. From left are Jamie Gassett, Joe, Robin Gassett, Albert King and Tom Brannon.
Robin shows off his tattoo to a hunter in Harrison County. After retiring in Georgia, Robin decided to move Kentucky to own a large piece of land where he could spend his days hunting.
Military group patches are displayed on a wall of the lodge. Robin doesn't charge disabled veterans and wounded soldiers to hunt, but he asks them to leave behind a patch from their unit or service branch to contribute to the wall.
Robin (left) and Tom look over maps of Robin's property to figure out where to place a deer stand.
Joe reaches for the door of a blind before a hunt. Having been to the lodge once before, he is now beginning to train as a guide and volunteer for the organization.
Albert, an Army veteran who served in the Iraq war, shows his daily pills after a hunt. After suffering from a traumatic brain injury, he was retired from the Army. Now one of the issues he fights against is the large number of pills the VA hospitals prescribes veterans. According to the Albert, the VA gave him too large a dosage of medicine that was damaging his liver. He was taken off it after another doctor realized the problem.
Joe is illuminated by light from an ATV as he makes his way back to the lodge after a day of hunting.
Robin (right) sings a duet at the Drunken Monkey bar with Katelyn Hollar. He often takes veterans with him to the bar to unwind after a day of hunting.
A hunting blind is illuminated by ATV lights. Robin's property has numerous blinds and stands scattered because a lot of deer pass through.