LAKOTA | For the past seven years Bernie Becker and his son, Jason, have organized hunting expeditions in Winnebago and Kossuth counties for Marines wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The yearly event, called Hunting with Heroes, culminates in a banquet in Lakota to honor the Marines.
Around 550 people attended the annual banquet last month, including more than 200 area veterans. Family members of veterans as well as Hunting with Heroes volunteers and sponsors, also were there.
No one is required to make a donation to attend the banquet. Jason Becker said Vietnam veterans and widows of veterans have started to attend.
"It's become so much bigger than we ever thought it would," he said.
It all started when Jason, who grew up in Lakota and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, read a book about Marines who were wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them were 18 to 24 years old.
Jason said his father, who still lives in Lakota, has always appreciated veterans because his own father, Arnold Becker, was at Pearl Harbor on the USS California when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
The ship sunk and Arnold was mistakenly listed as being among those killed in the attack.
In fact, he was only missing. Jason said he came back and said, "Hey, guys, I'm alive."
After reading the book about the wounded Marines, Jason spoke to his father about what they could do to help.
They decided they could offer two things in abundance in Kossuth and Winnebago counties: good hunting grounds and "great, patriotic people," Jason said.
The Marines who come to North Iowa to hunt are part of the Wounded Warriors Battalion. They are stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
The base uses the Hunting with Heroes trip as a milestone in the wounded Marines' recovery journey.
The Marine Corps requires candidates to go through a screening process -- which includes a check for mental stability -- before being chosen for Hunting with Heroes.
This year, six Marines went on the trip. They hunted for ducks and geese in the Forest City and Lake Mills area before going to Lakota for pheasant hunting.
The Marines used to stay in rental homes in North Iowa towns during the trip.
Last year, Zach Raulie, who works for Winnebago Industries and loves the outdoors, arranged for motor homes to be used instead.
This allows all the Marines to stay together during the trip, which they appreciate very much, according to Jason.
"These guys have been through a lot together" and don't want to be separated, he said.
"It all builds in into the camaraderie of the event," Jason added.
Sponsors pay for the plane tickets to bring the Marines from North Carolina to Iowa. A car dealership in Algona contributes trucks and gas cards to bring the Marines from the Des Moines airport to North Iowa.
During their stay the Marines receive an outpouring support at local bars and restaurants, Jason said.
Volunteers had to cut 15 miles of paths through fields before this year's Hunting with Heroes for the Marines to pass through while they were hunting.
Jason said a farmer "came out of nowhere" and told the volunteers they could have all the fuel from him they needed to complete the task.
The wounded Marines have "been through hell and back," Jason said.
Most of them knew at least one service member who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Sometimes it was someone right next to them," Jason said.
He noted every day in the United States, 22 veterans commit suicide. This includes not just those who were recently injured, but all veterans.
Jason said veterans living in North Iowa also could use some support. He's encouraging others to reach out to those individuals.
He said one of the Marines who made the Hunting for Heroes trip this year told him during his deployment, "there was an America I had in mind that I did all this for."
The Marine said when he came back to the United States, he didn't always see that America.
However, he said the people he met during the trip to North Iowa were the ones "he would fight and die for."