Beyond the trip of a lifetime: Disabled veterans group sends Minnesota man on African safari

LAKE PARK, Minn. - Navy veteran Tony Baker of Lake Park joined the Army National Guard right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and went through a lot during the Red Bull's 15-month tour of duty during the ugliest part of the Iraq war...
Tony Baker with the white rhino he helped stalk so it could be tranquilized. He named it "Betty" after his late mom, whose birthday would have been the same day this photo was taken. Submitted photo.

LAKE PARK, Minn. - Navy veteran Tony Baker of Lake Park joined the Army National Guard right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and went through a lot during the Red Bull's 15-month tour of duty during the ugliest part of the Iraq war in 2006-07.

He saw how bad things can be, so perhaps it's karma that he just got to enjoy a fantastic hunting trip in South Africa, expenses paid by the Disabled American Veterans organization.

He was able to help stalk a white rhinoceros, which was then tranquilized, and he successfully bagged a half-dozen or so venison-type animals during his eight-day stay near Cradock.

Even though his Toyota truck was chased and nearly speared by a black rhino at one point, "it was the trip of a lifetime, and then some," Baker said.

He and another veteran, a Green Beret who lost an arm in the Afghanistan war, were guests at Tam Safaris, with over 60,000 fenced-in acres and 40 species of game animals. Baker, 43, is in management at a Fargo hotel, and was impressed with the first-class hospitality at Tams. "It's second to none," he said. He left on his trip Feb. 12 and returned Feb. 22.

The eastern cape area of South Africa is usually dry and the savannah grasses brown, but it rained every day that Baker was there, so the grass was green and the animals were all "fat and sassy and enjoying life," he said with a grin. The two veterans and their guides were busy every day.

The most intriguing thing was the rhinos, he said. The heavy beasts compensate for their poor eyesight with extraordinary senses of smell and hearing, making them a challenge to track.

"Nothing will top the three days that we had rhino involvement," he said.

There's a big difference between aggressive black rhinos and more docile white rhinos, he said. "They say if it's running away from you, it's a white rhino, if it's running towards you, it's a black rhino," he said. The black rhino that charged their jeep got too close for comfort. "Our professional hunter was yelling at our driver to go faster-it was from here to the wall away," Baker said, pointing to a wall about five feet away. "It would have flipped the jeep."

Another time, "we got within 20 yards of them, a herd of white rhino went by about 20 yards away," he said, still a little in awe over the experience.

After Baker and his crew stalked his white rhino, a veterinarian used a tranquilizer gun to subdue it, and then implanted a GPS chip in the pregnant beast. All the rhinos are tracked in real time, especially at night, to protect them against poachers, since their horns can fetch a lot of money in Asia. To help keep them healthy, rhinos at Tam Safaris are also given vitamin shots by helicopter-riding vets using tranquilizer guns.

Baker did well on his hunting trip, bagging a black wildebeest, a red hartebeest, a blesbok, a zebra, an impala, a gemsbok and a white springbok. None of them endangered species, of course.

Nothing goes to waste there-all the meat is consumed, and as part of the trip Baker gets to have mounts of his trophy animals done by a taxidermist so he can display them.

Hunting and fishing trips sponsored by the Disabled American Veterans organization are a lot of fun, obviously. But they are also intended to be therapeutic for veterans, said Becker County Veterans Service Officer Lauri Brooke.

"Putting veterans together is a key part of recovery, because they understand each other," she said. "Part of it is trying to get them back to what they enjoyed before (combat) ... it's been proven to work-there's a recreational therapy to it," she said.

"It puts things into perspective," Baker agreed. He got a lot out of talking to his Green Beret companion, the first American amputee in the Afghanistan war, and Baker was inspired by the way the man didn't let his disability get in the way of enjoying the hunt. "He's just a stand-up guy," Baker said. "To watch him with one arm, and vision loss in one eye, it's interesting to watch him get behind a weapon and be a success at shooting."

Safaris may not be so politically correct these days, but that's because people don't always understand how much hunting contributes much-needed cash to the African economy, and toward helping preserve exotic animals and their environment. It's kind of like how groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever help preserve wetlands and other habitat needed for the game birds to thrive in Minnesota.

"The hunting and conservation efforts over there helps villagers, and helps the animals-it's amazing how poor they are over there-South Africans can't afford to put vitamins into rhinos," Baker said.

He said he's grateful to the Disabled American Veterans group for everything they do.

"Veterans used to come home and sit in the house and go on and never talk about it (combat) with anybody," he said.

As time and mental health has evolved, so has the way veterans deal with their experiences, he added. "When you are around people that have been through what you have, they get it," he said. "It was truly the trip of a lifetime."

If people want to get involved in helping pay for hunting and fishing trips for veterans (most are less expensive and much closer to home) they can talk to Brooke at the veterans' service office.