John Felix, a 20-year Army veteran, remembers jolting awake to the sound of gunshots in Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
“Two o’clock in the morning, 2:30, the mortar’s coming in, you lock and load,” said Felix, 47, of Waterbury.
An affinity for firearms led Felix, along with 16 other veterans who are patients of the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven, to sign up for a morning session of shooting targets Aug. 18 at the High Rock Range in the Naugatuck State Forest.
“The weapon is kind of like a part of our uniform,” Felix said. “It’s a part of us.”
The High Rock Shooting Association invited the veterans and paid for their ammunition, said Alan Laidlaw, 66, an association member who coordinated the event.
Laidlaw, who lives in the Horizon Homes complex in the borough, was in the Navy during the Vietnam War and later had his right leg amputated from diabetes. He is a member of the VA Hospital’s amputee support group and got the idea to bring his fellow veterans, many of whom are disabled, out for a rare trip.
“There’s a lot of people have a lot of interest in shooting,” Laidlaw said. “There’s some guys that are living in the VA. They don’t get out much.”
The group included hospital inpatients, some of them in long-term care, and veterans in rehabilitation as well as members of the amputee and multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury support groups.
Participants in the event had to have a doctor vouch that they were free of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which guns and gunshots could exacerbate, Laidlaw said.
The association laid out an array of rifles and handguns for the shooters, ranging from rifles used in World War I to an AR-15, a civilian version of the M-16 commonly used today.
“What we’re going to do is give them the opportunity to shoot some of the firearms they might have been affiliated with while they were in the service,” said High Rock Shooting Association President Ray Hanley.
The veterans donned goggles and earplugs and began shooting at targets, some shaped like birds, in the warm morning. Some shooters sat in wheelchairs or leaned on canes.
The softer pop of handguns alternated with the loud, jarring boom of larger rifles, and some of the gunmen talked and joked while others aimed in concentrated silence.
The field trip included a free lunch donated by the Colonial Tavern in Oxford, said Hanley, 77, a borough native and Navy veteran who now lives in Southbury.
The association plans to host veterans from the hospital again, said Hanley, who added that he does not know of any other shooting range that reaches out to ill or injured servicemen.
“We’re hoping to get other clubs to do something similar to this so that more of it could be offered,” Hanley said.