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6 purple hearts, 5 decorated veterans honored with South Dakota pheasant hunt

November 20, 2018

GETTYSBURG — Five decorated veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, had their names drawn out of a hat for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come to South Dakota on an all-expense paid five-day pheasant hunt.

Agapito Vega from Houston, Texas, Daniel Essig, from Deer River, Minn., Gary “Doc” Evins, San Antonio, Texas, Rex Wilson, Fallbrook, Calif., and Doug Thompson, from Karlstad, Minn., were selected to participate in the 2018 Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 8530 Winston Toomey Decorated Veterans pheasant hunt in Gettysburg, S.D.

Thompson was 19 when he was drafted to serve in the Army, one year out of high school. He served in Vietnam from March 1968 to October 1969 and was wounded in an ambush on Feb. 11, 1969 in the Chu Pa Mountain Region, Central Highlands in Vietnam. Thompson served in the infantry and now lives in Karlstad, Minn., and is a member of the River Falls VFW Post 2793.

“My hunting experience in Gettysburg was great, I loved the camaraderie with all of the other vets, and I am really grateful for the experience. I will never forget it,” he said.

Thompson hunted pheasants once in Minnesota and hunts deer and water fowl.

Vega served in Troop A, Fourth Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division from 1964-66 as an armor crewman in South Vietnam after training at Fort Riley, Kan. Vega then was stationed at Pho Loi, South Vietnam, and later served from 1966-67 at Amberg, Germany. Vega was wounded in an attack when he was hit by shrapnel in his right shoulder.

Vega applied for this year’s hunt because he likes to meet and talk to other veterans.

“This is an awesome memory that I won’t forget. It is my first experience at pheasant hunting and it was a blast and I would like to do it again,” said Vega.

Vega is now retired and serves in the VFW Honor Guard in Houston, which provides military rights for veterans funerals, up to 10 per day. Vega is a member of Houston, Texas VFW Post 581.

Essig served in the U.S. Army from 1977-81 at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Camp Hovey, South Korea. Essig has held numerous military positions including: Airborne, Infantry, and Cavalry Scout at all enlisted leadership levels at Arizona Army National Guard (1985-92), Minnesota Army National Guard (1992-2015), deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina (2003-04), deployed to Iraq (2005-07), and deployed to Kuwait and conducted missions in Iraq (2011-12). He received his Purple Heart as a result of wounds received as a result of an IED explosion in Iraq in August 2006.

“This was my first experience at pheasant hunting, but I do hunt deer, ruffed grouse, ducks, and geese,” he said.

Essig enlisted when he was 17 and entered active duty at 18, later leaving active duty when he was 22. Essig enlisted in the Army National Guard at 26 and retired from the Army National Guard at 56.

“Since I retired, my plans are to spend more time with my family, enjoying the grandkids, and cruising on my new Harley Davidson motorcycle,” Essig said.

He is a life member of the Deer River, Minn., VFW Post 2720.

Evins served in the U.S. Navy from July 1965 to May 1968 and was in the United States Marine Corp as a combat hospital corpsman (medic) in Vietnam. He received two Purple Hearts, one on July 7, 1967, and the second on Aug. 27, 1967.

“Both times we walked into ambushes, and I was wounded the first time from a grenade and a gun shot in the right hip the second time,” Evins said.

Evins’s father was a Marine at Pearl Harbor when Japan bombed it, so it was expected of him to join the USMC. Immediately after graduation from high school, he went to enlist in the Marine Corp at 18.

“They informed me that all medical support for the USMC comes from the Navy, so I enlisted in the Navy and after training I was assigned to serve the remainder of my time with the Marines,” Evins added. He served as a combat hospital corpsman with a couple Marine Corps units, but after being wounded the second time, he was returned to the States and spent 11 months in a military hospital. After almost a year recovering from being wounded, he was medically retired in May 1968.

“I was 19 years old when I went to Vietnam and retired at age 20,” said Evins.

He was wounded both times while rendering medical support to fellow Marines in his unit.

Evins always wanted to be a doctor, but after spending so much time in the hospital, his desire to stay in the medical field was lost, so he went to engineering school. He worked for Siemens Engineering, a German company, in the automation division. A memorable project he worked on was being responsible for the motors on the Panama Canal, and he retired from Siemens seven years ago.

“It was an award-winning day and an experience I will never forget,” Evins said after shooting several pheasants.

Evins is a member of the San Antonio, Texas VFW Post 8541 and Purple Heart Chapter in San Antonio. He had never been to South Dakota and never hunted pheasant but enjoyed visiting and plans to return soon.

Wilson was drafted at 20 into the Army in November 1967 and trained in Fort Ord, Calif., starting in January 1968, and he then completed Basic and Advance Infantry Training (AIT).

“I was a squad leader in basic and acting drill sergeant in AIT, went to leadership preparation course, was in 11-B-10 Infantry, went to Germany, and was in 11-B-20 mechanized infantry,” Wilson said. “I was supposed to be there for 18 months but was called to Vietnam.”

Wilson fought for his country and was wounded Aug. 12, 1969, and was proud to have received the Purple Heart award.

“Another unit was being over run, and our unit just came back from a mission, and I jumped on a tank at Quentin to help the unit and was blown off by mortar or artillery,” Wilson added. “I still have a bunch of shrapnel in my lower back.”

Wilson read about the pheasant hunt in a VFW article and thought it sounded like a wonderful thing to spend time with fellow veterans, and he has family and friends in South Dakota, so he applied. Wilson had never hunted pheasant but used to hunt deer and elk in California and Colorado.

“I just want to thank everyone for the lifetime experience of being chosen with these other vets for the wonderful event that the Gettysburg, S.D., VFW hosts,” Wilson said.

Wilson lives in Fallbrook Calif., and plans to join the VFW Post 1924.

“Fantastic, awesome, I have never met so many nice people and it is an honor to be here … and I haven’t had this much fun in a very long time,” Wilson said. “I think it is wonderful you do this for the vets, and it really means something special to me.”

“This pheasant hunt has had many positive impacts for the community,” Darwin Tolzin, Department of South Dakota VFW quartermaster, said. “It is a yearlong effort, from having fundraisers, arrangement of locations to hunt, housing, and food for morning, noon, and evening is never-ending.”

The motto of the VFW is, “No one does more for Veterans.” The Gettysburg VFW Winston Toomey Post 8530 members are responsible for the hunt and have full control of the event with only assistance from others.

Post 8530 got the opportunity to host the pheasant hunt when another area chapter approached them a few years ago asking if they were willing to take it over.

“We saw it as an opportunity to give our fellow veterans an opportunity to do something they may never get to experience, plus a chance to come to our area, meet our members and our community, which is one of the most patriotic communities in the country,” said Butch Anderson, VFW member and this year’s event coordinator.

The Gettysburg VFW received 44 applications for the 2018 hunt. Due to the large number of applicants for five hunting spots, all names were put into a hat, and five were drawn out, plus two alternates.

“Let your fellow service members know about this hunt, talk about it at your VFW meetings, and of course, financial aid is always appreciated,” Anderson added.

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