PLEASANT RIDGE PLANTATION — On his deployment to Iraq in 2008 and 2009, Sgt. Tom Thibodeau oversaw the rescue of injured U.S. and coalition soldiers and Iraqi nationals.

On Tuesday, the 28-year-old from Holden was in a calmer environment as one of 16 veterans hunting grouse, woodcock, partridge and rabbit in the Pleasant Ridge Plantation area of Somerset County.

Sixteen additional veterans will participate in the second annual Tribute Hunt today, offered for free by the Pine Grove Program, run by Bob and Andrea Howe.

Thibodeau, a member of the Maine Army National Guard, said he is grateful for the program, which operates out of Pine Grove Lodge. These days he has a lot to be thankful for — first child, Hannah, was born six weeks ago.

“Every time I look at her there’s not a day goes by I’m not happy we all came home,” he said.

The Pine Grove Program offers about eight large hunting and fishing trips for veterans and emergency responders each year, Andrea Howe said. Veterans also receive free meals and the hunting advice of volunteer guides.

The idea is to give back. Howe said the hardest part is convincing veterans to come because they either don’t believe it’s free or think others deserve it more.

“We’re always looking for more veterans who want to take advantage of it,” she said.

Sgt. Dan Bartlett, 28, of Brewer, said he enjoyed the hunt. Also with the National Guard, he served two tours in Iraq to support medical evacuation operations. His first tour ran from 2003 to 2004 and the second was with Thibodeau in 2008 and 2009.

“I’m just thankful for everyone out there that gives opportunities like this to vets,” Bartlett said. “It’s just nice to know that people out there still care and are willing to help us out.”

The hunting expeditions Tuesday and today also brought together a large number of hunting dogs, including some from the Maine Spaniel Field Trial Club. In total there were 30 English cocker spaniels and 17 beagles, Howe said.

“They provide guides and trained dogs for us that a lot of people usually have to spend a lot of money on,” Thibodeau said. “I thought I’d be kind of a fool to pass up an opportunity like this.”

Future group hunts will be posted to the website Howe said a rabbit hunt is planned for January and an ice fishing event for February.

Howe said she and her husband also own Maine Guide Snowshoes and are interested in hiring a veteran who knows how to lace traditional wooden snowshoes.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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