HECLA, S.D. (AP) — Alex Russo grew up knowing he'd give back to his country.

But he never imagined it'd be in the way he is now.

"I was medically separated from the Marines, but that didn't end my service," he told the Aberdeen American News . "My mission now is to reach out to (veterans) and say, 'You are not left behind. We're going to pick you up, and you're going to get the appreciation you deserve.'"

Last week, Russo and his family hosted five veterans at Flatland Flyways near Hecla. This is the third year the lodge partnered with Freedom Hunters, said Russo's wife, Megan.

The lodge also hosts the hunters in the spring. Alex Russo estimates that between 50 and 60 veterans have visited northeast South Dakota through hunts coordinated by the organization's founder, Anthony Pace.

Freedom Hunters is a military outreach program that honors individuals from all branches of the military by taking active duty and combat veterans on outdoor adventures. There is one hold up with the program as in, Russo said: South Dakota is one of the only states that has a lottery draw for out-of-state waterfowl licenses.

"It's hard to call a vet, some of which are still active, and say, 'Well, you might be able to come, but you might not," he said.

Russo said he fought for legislation this year that would've changed that. It's something he plans to do again when the state has a new governor. He thinks more licenses will lead to economic development and get more people to hunt in South Dakota.

The Freedom Hunts are all-inclusive. The only expenses for the hunters are travel costs and the cost of a waterfowl license.

"We accept no form of payment. Pretty much they show up and the lodge is theirs for three days," Russo said.

The Russos and other staff make all meals and handle the cleaning. Russo and other hunting guides take veterans hunting every morning and again in the afternoon, if needed.

There's a trap range out back for the hunters to get in some extra shooting. There's time for camaraderie — to talk about service, deployments, injuries and life in general.

"I called Anthony Pace and said I wanted guys that were wounded, that had ... Purple Hearts, Bronze (Star) Medals," Russo said.

Of the last five, three had been injured in the line of duty. Most had medals and multiple deployments, but they all had the kind of bond of military family, Russo said.

An Aberdeen native, he enlisted in the Marines after graduating from Central High School in 2010.

He met Megan online after Facebook suggested her as a friend while he was deployed thousands of miles away — even though she lived in Bowdle. The couple met in person after his eight-month deployment to Afghanistan ended in 2012.

In 2013, Russo noticed some back pain and tingling in his toes while completing physical fitness screenings. At the time, he was working in masonry and serving in a Marine Reserve unit based in Wahpeton, North Dakota. The findings of the screenings were life-changing. He said he had two discs that were herniated so bad his nerves were wrapped around his vertebrae, which required surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. That ended his time in the Marines.

Russo had always worked in construction, but it was that time his dad had the idea of charging for hunts. The first year, there were only two paying groups, Russo said. But then his dad had another idea.

"Dad said, 'If you really think you can do this, let's build a lodge,'" Russo said.

The lodge opened in 2014.

While the business is growing, providing a place to hunt is about more than making money for Russo. It's about giving back.

"The thing is, the majority of Americans support the military and police and that's a message I'm very serious about. If you like it, come hunt. If you don't, there are other places you can hunt," he said.

In the past, he said there was an instance when he turned away a group of 10 people who had booked the lodge when one of the 10 didn't want to share it with two Vietnam veterans who later inquired.

"If you don't support the troops, don't come," Russo said. "I don't settle for money. I settle for people who want to be here for our country, our vets and our youth."

Freedom Hunts are scheduled for three nights and three days. The final handshake goodbye after the final morning's hunt isn't always the last time the Russos hear from the soldiers. Many of them send pictures of their children or other hunts they take with friends — things Russo said makes their lives continue together like a little family.

"No matter what, no matter if I served with them or not," Russo said. "We're all brothers and sisters in arms."


Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com