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Noah's bear: How an Airman guided a disabled boy on a dream hunt

Master Sgt. Joseph Koback and his son Bryce pose behind Noah and his father Lester Walters after Noah accomplished an adventure in northern Wisconsin in September, shooting his fist black bear near Minong, Wis.  Noah, a handicapped boy from Gulfport, Mississippi, suffers from morquios syndrome, a disease which shortens life expectancy and causes the skeletal system to not grow with the rest of the body.  After agreeing to organize a hunt, Master Sgt. Joseph Koback, an avionics technician at the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison,  put his team and the plans together to make Noah's first-ever hunt successful.

Master Sgt. Joseph Koback and his son Bryce pose behind Noah and his father Lester Walters after Noah accomplished an adventure in northern Wisconsin in September, shooting his fist black bear near Minong, Wis. Noah, a handicapped boy from Gulfport, Mississippi, suffers from morquios syndrome, a disease which shortens life expectancy and causes the skeletal system to not grow with the rest of the body. After agreeing to organize a hunt, Master Sgt. Joseph Koback, an avionics technician at the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, put his team and the plans together to make Noah's first-ever hunt successful.

Madison, Wis. -- This was a last minute dream hunt as doctors told Noah's father that his son might not live past Christmas.

After agreeing to organize a hunt, Master Sgt. Joseph Koback, an avionics technician at the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, immediately began putting his team and the plans together to make Noah's first-ever hunt successful.

Koback's motivation was simple yet heavy.

"We can't afford a bad hunting experience because this might be his last," said Koback.

Noah, a 12-year-old boy from Gulfport, Mississippi, always dreamed to go on a bear hunt, said his father Lester Walters.

"Ever since he was little he would tell his sister to get on her hands and knees, crawl around and be a bear while Noah pretended to be the hunter," Lester said. "Hunting bear is something he always wanted to do."

Noah is bound to a wheelchair and is living with morquios syndrome, a disease in which the body is missing or doesn't have enough of a substance needed to break down long chains of sugar molecules called glycosaminoglycans. This disease shortens life expectancy, requiring many spinal surgeries because the skeletal system does not continue to grow with the rest of the body, in addition to other difficulties.

The handicapped hunter would need an expert guide.

Koback, a lifelong hunter and president of the central Wisconsin chapter of Safari Club, has a reputation for helping others and has gained the trust of many.

"After doing over 7,200 hunting and fishing wishes in 38 states, it doesn't take long for me to sensor through people," said Brigid O'Donoghue, CEO and founder of United Special Sportsman Alliance, Inc., a non-profit dream wish granting charity, that specializes in sending critically-ill and disabled youth and disabled veterans on the outdoor adventure of their dreams."I just knew that Noah would need someone very special and with a very kind heart and Joe is that," she added.

Brigid agreed to help Noah with his dream hunt after receiving a call from Wallis Williams, the Walter's family pastor, as Williams searched for a way to get Noah on a hunt, said Lester.

Koback's usual hunting group of family and friends welcomed the opportunity to help out Noah and agreed to make him a priority in camp, said Koback.

Noah, Lester and pastor Williams flew up for the second weekend of the season to share in the dream hunt experience. They flew to Madison, Wisconsin, in early September.

After picking Noah's hunting party up at the airport, Koback surprised the group by asking Noah if he would like to see an F-16 fighter jet up close, said Koback. Noah's eyes lit right up, so they headed to the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison for a personal tour.

Noah had never been to an Air Force installation before nor had he seen an F-16 up close.

While on base, Koback introduced Noah to Airmen who answered his many questions and gave him a tour around different shops.

"First, I took them out to see the jets, and then they were given a tour of all the different weapons that can be loaded on the F-16 by Chief Master Sgt. Jim Schiferl and Tech. Sgt. Andrew Brickl," said Koback. "Of course, none of the missiles were live," he added for transparency.

Koback then proceeded to the egress trainer where Lt. Col. Douglas Read, an F-16 pilot for the 115th FW, put Noah in the cockpit and went through the functions of the different controls.

"We talked him through the egress trainer and the switches and displays and talked flying with him, said Read. "He was sitting in the seat with his hands on the stick and the throttle."

He is a neat little guy with his head only as high as the opening in the trainer, peaking out in excitement, said Read. Noah was fired up and having a good time in the seat asking questions for nearly an hour.

Koback was appreciative of the kindness shown to Noah by his fellow Guardsmen at the 115th FW.

"I would like to personally thank the friends and co-workers of mine for taking time out of their busy schedules to make this an extra special experience for Noah," said Koback.

His feelings were reciprocated by Read.

"The people are the most impressive part of this unit," said Read. "We have some pretty neat airplanes and do some pretty neat missions but it's really the people that make this organization special. We have Airmen here who do great things on and off base and Master Sgt. Koback is a great example of that."

Not only was Read impressed by Koback giving of himself, he was encouraged by Noah's perseverance.

"I think anytime you are around someone like Noah, he makes me appreciate the struggles he is going through and even in all that, he keeps a great attitude," said Read.

Noah's father holds the same view of his son.

"There are a lot of things he cannot do," said Lester. "He can't walk, he can't play with other kids, but he never complains about anything."

The pastor, the father, Noah and his guide Koback departed the 115th FW and headed north together for the five hour trip to Minong, near where they would be hunting. They soon found out they wouldn't need a radio for the trip.

Koback stopped at his home to pick up his 11-year-old son Bryce as he thought Noah would enjoy the company of someone his own age, said Koback. In addition, Koback admitted that leaving his son home on a hunting trip was a hard thing to do.

"The two boys played the 'did you know' game and I think the three adults were the students in the vehicle," said Koback.

In Minong there is so many hundreds of thousands of acres of public land that anyone can hunt on if you have a license, said Lester.

"We have never experienced hunting in Mississippi like this," said Lester in his soft southern drawl. "Down here you don't hunt unless you are in a hunting club because there is no public land."

After a short night's sleep at a local inn, the hunting party was ready to start at 6:00 a.m., said Koback. There was frost on the ground as the group gathered at a gas station to pick up some snacks. While there they met up with Riley Christenson and his father. Riley donated his tag to Noah after waiting eight years for it, and Riley and his father were welcomed into the group to share in Noah's hunt.

Friday, their first day of hunting, was filled with good intentions in addition to bad luck.

There were just too many people and too many dogs in the hunt, said Lester.

They had to hunt around private lands, other hunters, highways and the hunting party was large and disorganized, said Koback.

"We all tried hard but just couldn't get a bear," said Koback. "Noah was enjoying the experience but I could tell the long trip the day before and then the whole morning in the truck was taking its toll. We called it a day, went for supper and let them catch up on some rest."

Saturday would be different.

The large group split up into separate hunting parties, all with their own tags. When the first bear was spotted, it was agreed that Noah would be brought to that location to get his bear.

The land around Minong is almost all forested with some clear-cuts, said Koback. The roads are all dirt and sand. Koback drove the roads and looked for tracks to see the size of the bear and to see if there were cubs to stay away from.

Noah was able to start seeing the tools to hunting first-hand. The plott hounds released have global positioning systems attached to their collars. As they track through the forest, their signal is received by Koback and Noah in the truck.

"It was like watching a video game for Noah," said Koback.

The GPS display was a topographical map where Noah could see the roads and the individual dogs indentified by their own number as they tracked.

Koback has used trackers on his dogs to keep them safe as well and making sure his dogs do not push a bear across a major road, said Koback. In addition, if a dog fell behind the others, Koback could check to make sure it was not injured.

You could tell what was going on by the sound of the dog's bark as it changed depending on whether it was smelling a cold trail, saw a bear or ran a bear up a tree, said Koback.

This GPS system allowed Noah to watch what was going on in real time as the truck drove hundreds of miles in search of his bear.

While Koback and company were tracking on their trail, a call came over the radio receiver that dogs from another party jumped a bear and were in pursuit.
Fifteen minutes later, Noah and his hunting party arrived near the treed bear.

"As soon as we got there, everyone unloaded the vehicles and headed 100 yards back into the woods," said Lester. "There were near 15 guys there to witness Noah's shot."

I carried my son as we couldn't use a wheel chair in the forested terrain, said Lester. Riley walked in front of Noah and held branches back as Lester carried his son to where the bear was treed.

"The tree was like this big," said Koback as he spread his arms apart describing a pine tree he couldn't get his hands around. "It was a perfect tree for the bear because if the tree were smaller, the bear might feel unsafe and come back down and attack the dogs and hunting party. This gave Noah all the time in the world to get to the location, get set up and for me to explain on the whole situation."

There was never a question as to who would shoot Noah's bear.

"This is my hunt, I want to pull the trigger," Koback heard Noah say which really impressed Koback.

"Noah was excited," said Lester. "This was the moment he had been waiting for. But in the excitement, no one remembered to bring a rifle for Noah from the truck. A man ran to the vehicles and brought back a .243 youth rifle."

Lester sat down on the ground and leaned against a tree with his back to the bear 25 feet behind him and 40 feet up in the tree, Lester said. Lester held the rifle against his shoulder and placed his son on his lap. As Noah lined up his sights on the bear, his dream was about to come true.

A clean kill shot is important, said Koback. The hunter should not needlessly hurt the bear and an injured bear might run down the tree and attack members of the hunting party. They had a backup shooter standing off to the side in case a second shot was needed.

Bang!

Bull's eye. Noah's bullet pierced the bear's heart.

"A couple of the older guys said they know people who have been bear hunting their entire lives and have never killed a bear with one shot through the heart," said Lester.

The excitement was shared by all members of the hunting party.

"It was fun to watch him," said Koback. "If he could have walked, he would have been doing cartwheels all over. There are very few times I have seen a kid this excited. My son just shot a huge buck and was excited, but not like Noah."

"This is my bear and it's going to look good on my bed," Koback remembered Noah saying. "He never stopped talking the entire time while the team was taking pictures of Noah and his bear."

Hunting is more than the kill to Koback.

"If you want to shoot, go to a range," said Koback. "If you want to kill something, go to a penned deer. Hunting is the chase and the challenge. It is being one in nature and the challenge of the hunt. The challenge is to go into a bear's environment and outsmart them."

Sharing in Noah's bear story was far better for Koback than his many personal hunting experiences.

"Helping someone challenged like Noah fulfill his dream of hunting that he otherwise wouldn't get; and then taking a black bear is better than pulling the trigger myself any other day," Koback said.

Koback still keeps in contact with Lester and Noah every few weeks and is proud to have helped Noah achieve his dream bear hunt, said Koback.

"Noah had spinal surgery the end of October and had a few complications which kept him in the intensive care unit for a month," said Lester. A week ago Monday he came home. It has been touch and go for the past month but he is now home and doing fine."

The best thing a person can do with these kids is treat them like there is nothing wrong with them, said Koback. Everyone treated Noah like he was just one of the guys.

Now Noah is just one of the guys, a hunter, with his own bear story to tell.
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