ANSON — Del Dinsmore looked out on an empty field filled with gunsmoke. He stood with his hands in his pockets as mist rose in the background from the nearby Kennebec River.

“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have done this,” he said, his voice barely audible over the firing of AK-47 and M16 assault rifles.

On Sunday, Dinsmore, 68, was one of 17 wounded veterans to participate in a shootout hosted by Williams Machine Gun Range to support military veterans and raise money for the Wounded Warrior Rehabilitation Program, a nonprofit based in Augusta that offers support and services to wounded veterans of all conflicts.

“It may seem strange to give a wounded veteran a gun,” said Andy Williams, the range owner and a former Army weapons specialist and infantryman. “But it’s actually an opportunity to associate gunfire with something that is safe and fun. It’s therapeutic.”

Gayle Cunningham, president of the program, said about 1 in 5 war veterans of conflict return home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There are a lot of problems with PTSD,” Dinsmore said. “I think something like this helps us out.”

He said that after serving a year in Vietnam, 1966 to 1967, he had trouble processing his own experience and didn’t start seeing a therapist until 2000.

Cunningham said the shootout is a way for veterans to remember what they have been trained to do as opposed to an experience that forces them to relive the pain they have endured.

“Many veterans return to their lives as civilians and don’t know what to do,” she said. “They are trained to shoot guns. It is part of who they are, and that is their job. To not have that anymore is really hard.”

“We want to associate gunfire with good feelings, not bad,” Williams said. “That will get them out there hunting and fishing and being in the outdoors.”

Nehmiah Nattress, 32, is an operations officer for the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management in Waterville. Having served 14 months in Iraq, he said coming home is a big adjustment.

“Things like this are an opportunity to get together with guys like yourself,” he said. “It’s not as much about shooting a gun as bringing people together.”

For some however, the shooting was the main attraction.

“I like shooting machine guns,” said Robert Hauger, 67, of Bangor, when asked why he came to the event.

Hauger is a Vietnam veteran who was paralyzed completely from the neck down after he was shot behind his left ear in 1973 in Thailand. He was able to walk again the following year but still uses a wheelchair to get around sometimes.

“A large part of being in the military is using guns like this,” Williams said. “It’s the reason why some people join the military.”

The range is in a wooded area at the end of a dirt road off River Road in North Anson. It borders the Kennebec River. It normally operates as a private shooting range. Williams said most of the members are veterans or ex-law enforcement officials.

Sunday’s shootout was open to spectators for a $20 admission fee, with the proceeds going to the program. The public also could pay more to shoot an M16 or use a grenade launcher.

Seventeen veterans — slightly fewer than last year — attended, but Williams said more who signed up stayed away because of the rain.

“When you’re old, you want to do things you did when you were young,” said David Villeneuve, 65, a Vietnam veteran who came from Jericho, Vt., for the shootout.

Villeneuve runs his own shooting range in Vermont, the Green Mountain Boys Shooting Club. He said he sponsors a similar event for Army National Guard members.

“I came to honor these people” he said. “It’s an activity just like getting out to hunt or fish.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com