Kansas troops gain conservation awareness from Iraqi war zone
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The New Year brought new excitement for the Rangers of 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division -- often known as Ft. Riley's Big Red One -- as the home stretch of their 15-month deployment neared. Thanks to Kansas chapters of Pheasants Forever and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) through the Fort Riley Outdoorsman’s Group, affectionately known as FROG, the soldiers were offered a taste of home to celebrate the close of 2007 during a barbeque and raffle on New Year's Eve.

In addition to being a night of celebration, the Rangers managed to promote outdoor conservation as well. Brigade Commander Col. Ricky Gibbs was in attendance, and together with Brigade Command Sergeant Major James Champagne and Maj. Brent Cummings, the regiment's executive officer, they distributed dozens of prizes including shirts, hats, calendars, magazine subscriptions, and the main prize of the evening -- four free bird hunting trips.

Pheasants Forever and TRCP donated merchandise and trips for the event. These Rangers were the second combat brigade deployed in support of President Bush’s surge and have been fighting in one of the most dangerous portions of Baghdad for nearly a year. According to Cummings, the party was "a way for soldiers to let off some steam and remind themselves of the great things that wait for them when they return to Kansas in the spring.

"Many of our soldiers enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping back home in Kansas," Cummings added. "This evening gave supporters a way to show their appreciation for our soldiers and promote conservation though current and future Kansas outdoorsmen."

PFC Joseph Semtak, an avid outdoorsman who assisted with the evening event, identified with the excitement shown by soldiers who walked away with free hunting trips.

"This is something that gets guys excited about going home and reminds them of just one of the many things we fight for," said Semtak. "For many of them, it was the first time they had heard of the various conservation and outdoor groups around. Now they have more ways to support the environment and the outdoors when they get home. They can help protect what they love."
Cummings acknowledged that the merchandise and trips were a way for stateside groups to thank soldiers in Iraq for what they do every day, but he also saw it as more.

"These soldiers are fired up about protecting what they have back home," said Cummings. "We hope that they know they are appreciated and that they also become involved in these programs when they return to Kansas."

By the end of the party, Cummings, Gibbs, and Champagne -- who sit on the board for FROG -- were able to give everyone a prize and a free one-year subscription to the Pheasants Forever Journal of Upland Conservation.

With barbeque-filled stomachs and soldiers looking forward to fall hunting trips back home, the night served as a great way to ring in the New Year. It also served as an opportunity for some very supportive people back home to thank these soldiers who took a step towards protecting the Kansas environment from the opposite side of the world.