WASILLA — Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler has seen his share of combat.
A seven-year military veteran, Zeigler also is a survivor of a 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting spree that killed 13 soldiers and wounded 31 others. He also recalls marking this past week the fifth anniversary of Memorial Day 2007, which he spent in combat in Iraq.
“I was thinking about my friends I lost in Iraq that day,” Zeigler said. “It was pretty rough this time around, because it was the fifth-year anniversary of a very horrible day we had in Iraq.”
Zeigler said he lost six friends that day. Add to that the emotional and physical scars he carries from the Nov. 5, 2009, Fort Hood attack, when Maj. Malik Nadal Hasan opened fire with a pair of handguns in the military base’s Soldier Readiness Center.
While Zeigler and his wife, Jessica, have shared their story before, they’re in Alaska this weekend to spend some down time with others who can relate on a more personal level. Zeigler and Jessica are among the nearly two dozen wounded veterans and family in the Valley this weekend to hunt bear with each other and a few of their favorite celebrities.
This year marks the second annual hunt for Valley based Alaska’s Healing Hearts, a nonprofit that organizes outdoors activities for wounded veterans.
Along with the veterans, attending this year’s hunt are country music stars Aaron Tippin and Steve Cochran, hunting celebrity Jim Zumbo and Chub Eastman of Sports Afield, said James Hastings, a retired 21-year military vet and founding board member of Alaska’s Healing Hearts. What Hastings said he loves about these hunts is that the veterans are the real celebrities.
“These (celebrities) understand they’re not famous here, these brave guys are famous with them,” he said. “They look up to them like brothers and sisters. I’m lucky as hell to be around these young warriors here. It validates your time wasn’t wasted and you’ve kept alive a long history of service.”
While a dream trip to Alaska for a bear hunt won’t erase these veterans wounds or emotional scars, it does help to get them together with others who know exactly what they’re going through, Hastings said.
That’s something Zeigler said he appreciates after his first night of the hunt.
“It’s really great just to be able to talk the talk and to know that people know what you’re saying,” he said. “There’s always that kinship, that brotherhood you have automatically.”
The natural beauty of Alaska also wasn’t wasted on the Zeiglers, Patrick said.
“It’s great. We set up real nice on a ridge overlooking a whole basin area,” he said, which is exactly what he imagined Alaska to be. “I honestly thought before coming up here I’d be sitting on a ridge just like I was last night. It was just what I expected, only better. The scenery is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in America.”
Zeigler’s group hasn’t bagged a bear yet, but the first Alaska’s Healing Hearts group that went out Thursday did, Hastings said. All four veterans in that group bagged a bear.
“I’m just glad to see them getting their turn,” he said. “Every generation takes their turn, and today when you join the armed forces, you know you’re gonna go to war. And they still continue to say, ‘Yes, I’m willing to do that.’ They’re not doing it for cash bonuses, they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
At a celebrity meet-and-greet event at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Wasilla Saturday afternoon, another piece to Zeigler’s story didn’t go unnoticed by Hastings. While introducing the couple to a crowd of several dozen, he remarked how military service can be hard on marriages.
For the Zeiglers, the hardships of deployment and being injured hit home even before they tied the knot, Jessica said. When Patrick was shot during the Fort Hood attack, they were engaged.
“She dropped everything and stayed with me in the hospital,” Patrick said. They were married a year later and are now expecting a child.
For a soldier who’s been through as much as Patrick Zeigler, he’s quick to push aside the label hero and pass it to his partner.
“I think she’s the most incredible person I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “To drop everything and be by my side like that. I can never pay her back, all I can do is love her.”
Contact reporter Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.