Falling from a deer stand is the last thing that seasoned hunter Tommy Brown had on his mind that crisp fall morning in 2005. Living in South Carolina his entire life, hunting came as naturally to him as eating grits with shrimp. Tommy has always been drawn to the land, and working as an appraiser has been the perfect career fit for him. Anyone who knows Tommy will immediately tell you that he is a true outdoorsman. He named his only son Woods. As far as Tommy was concerned, there was no name better suited for a son.
I’ve known Tommy for more than 30 years, but until the day I wrote this article, I never knew he is a Vietnam combat veteran. That’s Tommy Brown. Being a warrior didn’t define him, and he found no reason to bring it up. His easygoing style is only upstaged by his happy, charming personality and contagious smile.
In a few months, Tommy was looking forward to celebrating his first anniversary with his soul mate, Carman Stone Brown, a beautiful young lady. Most people don’t get second chances at love, but this was a romance that was undeniable.
My husband had hunted with Tommy many times over the years, mostly for ducks and doves. But this year, it was all about hunting for legendary whitetails during firearms season in Brown County, Illinois, where Tommy was to experience, for the first time, hunting monster bucks quite unlike the comparatively diminutive whitetails we see in South Carolina. Yeah, Brown County . . . the fact that Tommy’s last name is Brown made his eyes twinkle a bit more, as if he needed any extra twinkle that day!
Climbing up those frosty rungs into the deer blind was a thrill that Tommy had anticipated for months, and he felt blessed as the night sky, filled with bright stars, morphed into early light. He thanked God for this amazing creation, and relished the time to sit quietly and take in the beauty before him. That single morning Tommy saw more bucks than he had seen in several seasons at home in South Carolina.
As the hours passed, he soaked up the sights and sounds around him, not wanting to miss a thing. A flock of turkeys kept him entertained as they pecked their way through the food plot, and his excitement intensified when a doe ran out under his stand as a huge buck with a broken rack that looked more like a mule erupted from the woods in an unwieldy chase after her. The buck was in heavy pursuit, nostrils flaring, tongue hanging, and set on claiming that doe. “I’ve a feeling I’m not in South Carolina anymore,” he told himself with a laugh.
Hunting for a 150-inch class deer or better was the plan, and the host had told Tommy that when things “slowed down” he should climb down and move to another stand several hundred yards in the woods behind him. Grabbing a light pack and your rifle is all you need to do when hunting the mild temperatures in the South Carolina woods. However, it was quite different on this hunting adventure.
Because he was expecting to spend the entire day in quite cold temperatures, Tommy’s bulky clothes, over-packed knapsack, rifle, and the two-way radio he carried set in motion events that no one would have ever imagined when he decided it was time to move to the other stand. Disregarding his host’s suggestion to clip his gun to the cord provided, Tommy began his descent, gun in hand. The “box” blind was wrapped in camouflage netting and as his feet stepped to the third rung, his backpack snagged the netting. He made a quick twisting motion to free himself, and after that one movement he felt a distinct sensation of floating backwards, and the inevitable impact! Silence.
Sometime later, he awoke dazed and confused, and as he opened his eyes, he felt like his body had imprinted into the ground. Panic set in when he realized he could not move, and fully aware of his perilous situation. His body felt crushed from the fall, but Tommy was thankful that he could feel his toes wiggle. Try as he might, his right side would not respond to his brain’s commands and terrible pain signaled his injuries were severe.
“I began to yell for help,” Tommy told me. “I saw the radio, which had fallen out of my pack, lying to my right. I was going to have to reach over my busted side and drag myself to it. After yelling and crawling, I managed to grab it and heard myself screaming: ‘Mayday, mayday! Help, help, please!’” No one answered, and Tommy had that sickening feeling come over him, knowing the dangers of hypothermia and shock. He prayed.
While Tommy lay helpless in the worst pain he had ever imagined, he would learn later that the hunter nearest to him had killed a trophy buck and had gone to retrieve his quarry. To make matters worse, his host was hunting out of radio range. Minutes felt like hours as his mind raced while his body was frozen in time. He thought about his beautiful wife, Carman, and how much he loved her. He drew his strength through prayer and focused on surviving and getting back to the life he loved. After all, he was a warrior, and warriors never give up. He mustered up the strength to make another attempt to reach someone, anyone.
Just as he frantically radioed again for help, Carman’s uncle Jerry, who was in radio range, had been critiquing a buck, and deciding it was not a shooter, he turned the radio back up, only to realize someone was in serious trouble. A scratchy but clear “Mayday! Mayday!” came over that radio. That someone calling was Tommy Brown, and time was running out.
A rescue helicopter was transporting another hunter from a neighboring property and was too far out of range to help get Tommy to the hospital. When the medics finally arrived, they cut off Tommy’s clothing and loaded him onto a piece of plywood on the back of an ATV. Tommy was in a daze, drifting in and out of consciousness during the long, grueling, and seemingly endless ride over rough terrain. He was shot full with morphine, but that did not keep him from realizing the extent of his injuries. After what seemed like an eternity, they reached the awaiting ambulance.
They arrived at the nearest hospital, but were quickly shuttled to the capital city’s hospital when doctors determined that Tommy had a broken humerus, two broken ribs, and cracked vertebrae. The journey out of the backcountry where they’d been hunting to get to medical attention lasted 12 hours after the fall, and Tommy is sure that there were at least that many morphine shots.
Tommy miraculously recovered from his injuries. He is the lucky one, as he later learned that the other injured hunter, who was airlifted, is now a paraplegic. “I fully recovered, but at the touch of a tree stand rung, my senses heighten and I concentrate on every single move—particularly descent. There is a well-used cord on all of my stands, and this former lone hunter checks in with someone after getting on the ground. I feel that only by the grace of God, I was not killed or permanently injured. I returned to the ‘scene of the crime’ two years later and took the deer of a lifetime—182 inches. To God be the glory.” His stand was named “911,” for obvious reasons.
Every time I climb into my deer stand, I can’t help but think of Tommy Brown. When someone you know and care about goes through a life-changing event like this, it has a way of doing just that. Every step I take is cautiously measured. My cell phone is always in a zippered pocket. If there is bad reception, I carry a walkie-talkie for backup. I never hunt solo—I don’t need to prove anything. There is always someone in a deer stand somewhere close by who knows where I am and when I am getting down from my stand. Of course, it is always a great idea to wear a harness. You could say that his story has made a huge impact on how I hunt.
There are not many things that Tommy Brown enjoys more than hunting, and his deep desire is to pass along his story so that other hunters may stay safe doing what they love and cherish. Hunt safe, my friends!