Hunter shares passion with Marine, National Guardsman...

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The average deer hunter carries a rifle over his or her shoulder with the safety switch securely locked, but these two first-time hunters were in a habit of carrying a weapon in front of them with a finger close to the trigger.

Both have spent time on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were trained to make sure they were a difficult target for the enemy, and though there was no threat outside San Angelo that New Year's weekend, their instincts and military training still kicked in.

Rather than following closely behind the guides, they had a habit of keeping a 30-foot distance because tight groups are easier to hit. Marine Staff Sgt. Russell Williams of Norco, Calif. and Utah National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Layne Morris, of South Jordan, Utah, tended to run to open gates because it is more difficult to hit a moving target. They were eager to break down their rifles to clean them each night when it really wasn't necessary.

Williams said he had "the best time of (his) life" when he and Morris were treated to a whitetail deer hunt by Midlander Terry Johnson as a gift of gratitude for their service.

"We each got a trophy," Williams said Friday in a telephone interview from California as he navigated through traffic. "The support from the surrounding community was phenomenal.

"I came back and told my wife, 'We're moving to Texas,'" he said with a laugh.

Williams had not even returned home from the hunt before his wife cleared a spot on their living room wall for the trophy buck she knew he'd bag. Though this was his first deer hunt, his wife expected him to bring a grand Texas buck back to California.

Though bucks tend not to be among the things included by locals when proclaiming, "Everything is bigger in Texas," Williams found a stately 10-point trophy. Morris got an equally impressive eight-point buck.

A taxidermist in San Angelo offered to mount the bucks for free. A meat processing plant also donated their services.

"My kids love venison burgers now," Williams said.

Johnson said he can't put a finger on what precisely motivated him to offer the hunting trip as a thank-you gift to the military personnel, but he figured it would be natural to share his passion.

"I can sit here, and I don't have to worry about my safety because of what they are out there doing," he said. "I wasn't in the military, but I had a lot of buddies in the military. That was during the Vietnam War, and some aren't doing well now because of that. I wanted this generation of warriors, if you want to call them that, to know we appreciate them. They need to know we're behind them."

He originally intended to take the winners of a drawing on the hunting trip, but because word of the contest hadn't spread across the military community like he'd hoped, Johnson turned to a retired major general in Dallas who put him in touch with retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bob Hollingsworth, executive director of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a volunteer Department of Defense organization that acts as a liaison between National Guardsmen and reservists and their employers. Hollingsworth selected Williams and Morris for the hunt.

"Layne Morris is such an incredible young man," Hollingsworth said Friday. "Russ Williams is such a great American, too. I called these guys up and asked if they'd be available. I thought they were going to start packing their bags before I got off the phone with them."

Johnson and some fellow hunters paid for Williams' and Morris' airfare, meals, hunting fees and lodging costs. Texas Trophy Hunters provided camouflage clothes, jackets and hats.

"I couldn't even buy an Egg McMuffin on the way out of town," Williams said. "They took care of everything. I had a lump in my throat when the guys from Texas Trophy Hunters were interviewing me (for a broadcast of the hunt). Having that kind of gratitude showered on you is a hard thing to swallow."

Williams has been in the Marine Corps for 16 years and spent 8 1/2 months in Iraq where he helped to rebuild the country's infrastructure like water and sewage treatment plats, schools and bridges. He worked with an explosive ordnance group, also.

"We'd meet farmers who'd tell us where bombs were on their property, and we'd take care of that so their kids and innocent people wouldn't get into that," he said.

Johnson said he enjoyed learning about what Williams and Morris did while overseas.

"A lot of it I'd never heard about or never thought about," he said. "Layne told me they lived in caves. I thought, 'Why can't they give you appropriate shelter,' but Layne said it was 30 degrees cooler in the caves."

Morris is a part of the 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces and was sent to Afghanistan soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Morris lost sight in his right eye in a firefight.

"He said he was clearing a room and he heard the door shut," Johnson said. "The door had been locked from the outside, and someone threw a grenade in. He said it felt like he got hit in the face with a baseball bat."

A beebee-sized piece of shrapnel cut the optic nerve of Morris' right eye, Johnson said.

"What a collection of people that just make you feel incredible about America," Hollingsworth said. "To see the looks on these young men's faces was incredible. They would never have had the opportunity to do something like this if it hadn't been for the generosity of Texans."

Johnson said he plans to invite four more military personnel plus Williams and Morris for a hunt next year. One new person has already been selected for the trip, a young man who lost both legs in a humvee explosion in Iraq and is currently being fitted for prosthetics at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.



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