ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- The chaos of dark feathers exploding from the snow crusted tall grass on the edge of a cut cornfield brings the line of orange-clad hunters to an abrupt halt – each gauging the distance and direction of the wily bird rocketing skyward.
Shouts of “Rooster!” fill the air, giving the fowler with the safest and surest shot the green light to engage the target. A thunderous shotgun blast shatters the brisk autumn morning and the pellets hit their mark, knocking the wild ringneck out of the sky.
“What an awesome experience,” said 1st Lt. Jamie Seals, a physician assistant with the 28th Medical Group, reflecting on her first pheasant hunt. “I had a real love for the outdoors growing up in North Carolina, but I had never experienced hunting until I got here.”
Seals is one of many Airmen from Ellsworth who have been provided the opportunity to witness the splendor of the state and experience the thrill of pheasant hunting, thanks to the hospitality of two area landowners. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Gerald Walzel and his neighbor, Terry Ness, have hosted hunts for groups of up to 20 Airmen on their land near the state’s capital since 2012 as a way of thanking them for their service.
“Terry and I had been kicking around the notion of hosting Ellsworth Airmen for several years,” said Walzel, a country boy from the oil patch of Baytown, Texas, who has a few thousand flying hours under his belt. “Military service has gotten more difficult since my days, and this seemed like a good outreach to our Airmen to tell them that they’re appreciated.”
Walzel has hunted in South Dakota since the late 70s and grew to enjoy all the state offers. He retired in 2001 and elected to put down roots in the eastern part of the state.
“I really, really liked it here,” he added. “By chance, I was shown this little patch when it was up for sale and took it on the spot. The rest, as they say, is history.”
A little while later he met his neighbor, Terry.
“We started talking a few weeks after he moved onto the homestead and we just kinda hit it off,” Ness said. “I have been living, ranching and farming here for more than 50 years. Out here, you learn very quickly to rely on your neighbors, to be thankful, and to help each other out however and whenever you can. Gerald fit right in.”
Together, the pair hatched a plan to provide Airmen with an opportunity to hunt pheasants in South Dakota.
“We figured this is one way we could show our support and provide them with something this state is known for: pheasant hunting,” Ness said.
Walzel made a trip to Ellsworth in May 2012 to meet with the base command chief master sergeant at the time – Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Peterson – and pitched the idea to him. After some coordination and a lot of planning, the first group of hunters took to the field later that fall.
“It turned out that Chief Peterson was an avid hunter and understood what we were offering,” Walzel said. “He is largely responsible for the set-up and continuation of our program.”
Since then, Walzel and Ness have provided two weekends of pheasant hunting each season for Ellsworth Airmen. Each day of the hunt, the group – ranging from rookies to seasoned hunters – rallies at the farms near Onida, South Dakota, receives a safety briefing, discusses the ground rules and plan for the day, then hit the field.
“It means a lot for someone to open their property to you just because you are in the military,” said Maj. Travis Lytton, an operations officer assigned to the 28th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and base project officer for the hunts. “They have always been very kind to us and I don’t take the opportunity for granted. It just goes to show you how much some folks in this country appreciate what we do for them.”
Lytton, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, who arrived at Ellsworth two years ago, said he is grateful to be able to share his passion for hunting with some great folks from Pierre and his fellow Airmen.
“There are not many places you can experience a hunt like this,” he said.
Walzel noted that offering Airmen the chance to hunt is rewarding for him as well.
“Terry and I really enjoy providing them with the opportunity and have been fortunate to witness a lot of great events unfold in the last five years,” he said. “The highlight this year was watching the 12-year-old daughter of a major bag her first pheasant with an excellent shot. Everyone in the group was proud of the now veteran hunter – especially her dad. Providing the stage for acts like that to unfold is beyond words.”