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Imagine a 10-day, all expenses paid trip to Alaska, filled with fishing, hunting, grilling and grizzly bear watching.
It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, and it was made a reality for nine veterans this summer thanks to one Shelby County resident and his work with the Kentucky Wounded Warriors project.
Shelbyville resident Chuck Reed is the founder of the Kentucky Wounded Warrior project, a nonprofit, all volunteer organization which is currently undergoing a transition to become the Kentucky Wounded Heroes project, The name change will signify recognition and support for Kentucky firefighters, police, and EMS workers, along with soldiers from Kentucky or those with Kentucky ties, who have been wounded in the line of duty.
Reed is currently in Alaska and couldn’t be reached, but many were ready to tell about the work he’s put forward to bring the Kentucky Wounded Hero project to fruition.
Since 2009 Reed has used his numerous personal connections to annually organize and lead a trip to America’s great frontier at no cost to Kentucky’s wounded veterans. While Reed has always had to overcome obstacles make the trip happen, this year’s almost didn’t.
After the national Wounded Warrior Project had agreed to pay for the cost of the flights, a last minute change made that no longer possible.
“They decided they just didn’t have the funding…wasn’t anything malicious about it, but strictly from a funding aspect they just couldn’t do it,” said Mike Dentinger, treasurer for the Kentucky Wounded Hero project.
Dentinger, a Louisville metro police officer for more than 13 years, has helped Reed fund Alaska trips in the past — like in 2010 when he explained the program to G.J. Hart, then president and owner of Texas Roadhouse, and convinced him to contribute frequent flyer miles to the cause. That connection led to Reed asking Dentinger to take on the role of treasurer for the new Kentucky Wounded Heroes program.
Their first challenge?
Finding the money to get their wounded heroes to Alaska.
And this year Dentinger proved just as resourceful as he had in years past.
After making some phone calls, he convinced local Shelbyville Zaxby’s owner Steve Brewer to contribute $3,000 to the trip, which would be used to pay for the veteran’s meals. Brewer even accompanied the veterans to Alaska for a portion of the trip.
He also recruited Jeff Ratanapool of Century Mortgage to donate $9,000 to the cause, paying for the costly plane tickets.
Once arriving in Alaska on May 31, the Kentucky veterans enjoyed more than a week of the great outdoors — watching grizzly bears and eagles in their natural habitat, fishing for salmon, and exploring the Alaskan wilderness by plane and boat.
Cookouts and campfires were the norm, and friends and personal connections of Reed’s, eager to contribute to the cause of thanking veterans for their service and sacrifices, often hosted the veterans. Kentucky’s Wounded Warriors even got the chance to meet some of Alaska’s wounded fighting men.
The group stayed at the Salmon Catcher Lodge in Soldotna, Alaska, where Reed is a part-time employee.
“Chuck has been going to Alaska since 1977,” Dentinger said. “So Chuck has a lot of friends, and I guess connections…in Alaska. The only reason we can even afford to buy tickets like this is because of all his friends who donate their time…that’s what makes it so cool, because Chuck has all these contacts. I don’t have a dollar figure for that trip, but I bet it would be way less than half if we had just bought plane tickets and made reservations for Alaska.”
Without Reed’s connections and the support of his friends, the annual trip wouldn’t exist.
“Going to Alaska is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of people,” Dentinger said. “It certainly was for me. I never would have been able to make that trip, to be able to afford it and do it.”
One of the wounded warriors in attendance on the trip was Andrew “Sully” Sullens. Sullens was wounded in Afghanistan in 2009, when his leg was badly injured as a result of an explosion from an improvised explosive device (IED). He later opted to have his leg amputated.
Sullens still enjoys the outdoors, saying he hunts, fishes and kayaks. He especially enjoys mountain climbing, and said he makes it a point to go out west to mountaineer at least once ever year. As such, he relished the opportunity to travel to Alaska, and said overall it was a great experience and that he came away with new friends and contacts.
“We started out like most people, you know people coming from different walks of life, and things are a little strange,” Sullens said. “But about midway through people started to bond with each other and recognize with each other, and that was really cool…by the end we became good friends.”
Sullens too commented on the hospitality of Reed’s friends and supporters.
“They just opened up their homes to us,” Sullens said. “They didn’t have any more to benefit from it than you or I, it was just people who knew Chuck Reed really well and knew about his program.”
Both Sullens and Dentinger said the trip serves an important purpose in helping wounded veterans rebuild after stressful and traumatic experiences – exactly what the Kentucky Wounded Hero project is all about.
“This lets guys sit around a camp fire, or sit around a dinner table, with other guys who have…. similar challenges, and they get to talk it out,” Dentinger said. “Some of these guys are further along, others are guys who have been injured recently. Some of these guys, one guy who went with us is a Vietnam vet, they’ve been through those emotions and put their lives back together. They get to lean on each other, and these guys that haven’t quite figured it out yet get an opportunity to hear from guys who have dealt with it long term and come to terms with it. It’s a healing process.
“Plus, there is just something about fishing and hunting, and being out in nature, sitting around with a bunch of guys, that has healing properties in and of itself. Just to get away from the responsibilities and daily chores, and to just kind of take a deep breath and share stories with each other.”