Wyoming coal mine hosts Wounded Warrior Hunt
GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) – U.S. Army Capt. Matt Anderson was in Afghanistan in October 2010 when he stepped on a land mine. The explosion shattered his right foot and lower leg. Today, seven years and 24 surgeries later, he doesn’t have an ankle.
Six months before he was scheduled to come home from Iraq in 2011, Army Spc. Charlie Lemon’s truck was hit by an explosively formed penetrator. He lost both of his legs. His best friend lost his life.
Now it’s 2017 and the two were recently together in Campbell County hunting pronghorn near the Belle Ayr mine and sharing stories emphasizing the importance of safety with the mine workers.
Contura Coal West, which owns the mine, hosted the two veterans in October as part of the Wyoming Wounded Warrior Hunt, an event the mine has hosted for the last seven years.
Contura safety supervisor Charlie MacDonald said the hunt is just “Contura’s way of extending a thank you and acknowledgment to them.”
Anderson wore a carbon-fiber exoskeleton that enables him to walk. MacDonald pushed Lemon in a wheelchair as he tracked his pronghorn. After four or five hours, Anderson shot an animal from 486 yards away, right through the eye.
Anderson said his job in Afghanistan was “to hunt down the worst of the worst,” so this hunting trip was on a much lower degree of difficulty than he was used to. That’s especially because, he said, when “they’re not shooting back at you, it’s not quite as difficult.”
“We had a blast,” Anderson said of the Wyoming hunt. “The people we were with were good people, very patriotic. We both appreciated it.”
MacDonald said a coal mine and the battlefield have more in common than one might think.
“The coal mine’s an awful big playground. We watch, try to control safety, 100 percent,” he said. “But when you have that big of machinery, all it takes a little mistake and (the consequences) can be so severe.”
This year, there have been 14 fatalities at American mines, MacDonald told the Gillette News Record.
“We talk about smaller incidents that happen at the mine,” he said. “We try so hard to bring that message of the awareness of how careful we have to be to not be impacted by incidents. We spend 364 days preaching it to them.”
Safety presentations usually aren’t the most attention-grabbing activities for employees, but when the disabled veterans come to Contura and talk about safety, MacDonald said it leaves a lasting impression on the mine workers.
“These guys can say what I say with much more gravity,” he said. “I just love when they come here. They give back with the message they send to our workforce about their commitment and how serious incidents can be.”
MacDonald gave credit to Shane Durgin, vice president of operations for Contura Coal West, and land manager C.J. Fisk for continually supporting the hunt year after year.
Despite their different career paths, MacDonald and Anderson had a common goal at the end of the day.
“I want our crews to be safe, do the right things and go home safe to their families,” MacDonald said.
Similarly, Anderson said that as the leader of a platoon, it was his job to ensure that each soldier in his group made it home alive. This meant doing whatever it took to find the safest route.
“The safest route isn’t always the fastest. It might be two or three times longer on terrain that no one wants to walk on, but it is safe because it’s longer,” he said.
Other points he drove home with Contura’s workers were to prepare for the worst and always have a backup plan – or three.
“Plan A usually never happens,” Anderson said. “You’re already on plan B or C when you walk out the door.”
Even though MacDonald has been on these hunts for several years, he said he still learns a lot from the visiting veterans. He said he’s always struck by how they don’t feel sorry for themselves.
“If you close your eyes, (it’s like) you’re hunting with your best buddies. They’re just another coal miner,” he said. “They’re the most upbeat guys in the world, and when you open up your eyes, you see a very young kid that’s got disabilities.”
MacDonald said that when he asked Lemon how he handles his disability, Lemon told him, “I’d be happy to go lose the other half of my body.”
“That really rattled my cage,” MacDonald said. “I gripe if I hurt my finger.”
Anderson said that every day he wishes he could get back out on the battlefield.
“Many of my friends are still in Afghanistan right now,” he said. “I would do anything to fight next to them.”
Seeing these men really puts things into perspective, MacDonald said.
“They give us our freedoms we take for granted,” he said. “We gripe, complain about so many little things. To see them, their sacrifices, it does humble all of us.”