It's Veterans Day, and many might not know it, but Missouri deer hunters have been lending a hand — well, gloves — to disabled veterans across the country for years.
Those hunters have donated thousands of raw deer skins to Elks Lodges around the state, and the Elks then turn those hides into comfortable fingerless gloves for veterans who use wheelchairs.
Byron Moore, a leading knight at the Bolivar Elks Lodge, said Missouri hunters last year donated 4,729 deer hides for the national Elks Lodge's veterans-glove program. He hopes hunters donate 5,000 hides this year.
"It usually starts with bow season, and we let hunters know they can bring the hides they don't want to the lodge and drop them off," Moore said. "We pay for all the tanning and it's totally free to the veteran. It doesn't cost the government or veterans anything."
Robert Hicklin, a disabled veteran from Carthage now living at the Mount Vernon Veterans Home, has a pair of free deerskin gloves given to him by the Elks Lodge.
From 1946-1947, he served as an electrician aboard a Navy ship and remembers his ship being frozen in place at an iced-over harbor in China during one stretch of his service. Just across the bay: Korea, before the United States got into a shooting war there in 1950.
"Oh boy, it was really cold, and the bay we were anchored in was frozen over," Hicklin recalled. "When I was on watch, I put on everything I had to wear and they'd lower coffee down to us over the prow of the boat."
Now using a wheelchair, Hicklin said he appreciates the free gloves the Elks Lodge provided because they help him grip the hand rims on his wheelchair.
"Oh yes," he said. "I don't have the hand traction on the wheelchair without these gloves."
The lingering effects of Agent Orange poisoning put Max Rainey in a wheelchair.
The Mountain Home, Arkansas, Vietnam War veteran is 100 percent disabled, a fact he attributes to the harsh chemical herbicide that U.S. military planes sprayed on Vietnam forests to strip away the dense tree canopy.
Getting around in a wheelchair can be tough, especially on an aging veteran's hands. But for the past five years, Rainey has propelled his wheelchair with less discomfort, wearing soft, fingerless deerskin gloves provided for free by the national Elks Lodge fraternal organization.
"It's a godsend," said Rainey. "These gloves fit perfectly and they're nice and soft — better than any gloves I've had to buy. They're much better than cow leather. After you put them on a bit, they fit to your hands. It's very helpful for veterans like me."
Cow leather is expensive and not as supple as tanned deer skin, said Moore, from the Bolivar Elks Lodge. Plus, the Elks glove program makes use of a free material — the hide — that some hunters more interested in the meat might strip off a deer carcass and toss away.
"We are taking deer hides now," Moore said, on the eve of Missouri's November firearms deer season, which begins Saturday. "A person can bring the hide in a trash bag and we'll take it and cut off the fat and salt it down. In March or April, a guy comes by and picks them up and takes them to Coey Tanning Co. in Wartrace,Tennessee, who turns it into deer leather."
From there, the tanned leather is shipped to Yellowstone Leather Products in Idaho, where it's cut, trimmed and stitched into fingerless and full-finger gloves for disabled veterans. Smaller pieces are used to make leather-working craft kits for disabled or hospitalized soldiers to help take their minds off their injuries and improve manual dexterity.
He encouraged hunters who want to donate deer hides to call their local lodge first. Go to Elks.org, type in a ZIP code and it will bring up the nearest lodge's address and phone number.
"And if there are any disabled veterans out there who want a pair of these gloves, just call us and we'll make sure you get them," Moore said.
The Elks Lodge deerskin program began in 1948 in California, and now Elks Lodges in 18 states — including 75 Elks Lodges in Missouri — participate in the program today.
"We do this all over the country," said Mountain Home, Arkansas, resident Dennis McAleese, national chairman for the Elks Lodge leather program. "Missouri in the last four or five years has been the top producer in the country of deer hides for our program. It costs us about $150,000 annually at the national level, but the money comes from the Elks National Foundation."
He said it takes three square feet of good deer leather to make one pair of deerskin gloves. Last year, Elks Lodges nationwide collected 17,103 deer hides and distributed 2,843 pairs of deerskin gloves to veterans, including 72 pairs to veterans in Missouri.
"It's definitely going to a good cause," McAleese said. "Deer hide will last a lot longer than cow hide, it's cheaper and the leather is a lot softer on veterans' hands. We want to help them out because they're the ones that gave us our freedom."