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Wounded in accidental shooting, hunter rejoins the fray

It was a landmark moment in Terry Vert's life, that spring day last year when she revisited the spot where she had lived a turkey hunter's worst nightmare.

Exactly a year earlier, the farm near Springfield was filled with chaos. And Vert was at the center of that scene.

She could see herself, badly injured after being shot by a 14-year-old boy who had fired at movement in the brush. And she could picture the Life Flight helicopter landing in the field, the ambulance that had pulled into a clearing, the emergency paramedics scurrying around.

She was lucky to be standing there a year later, and she knew it.

So much had changed in her life. And this return to the place where that journey had started was just one more step in the healing process.

"It was surreal, standing there on that ridge, looking down on the spot where everything happened and reflecting on the past year," said Vert, 47, of Springfield, Mo.

"The woods were so peaceful and beautiful that day, and the turkeys were gobbling. But just a year earlier, things were so different at that exact spot.

"I remember thinking about how grateful I was to be there. It really was a special moment for me."

May 8, 2005, Mother's Day, started with great hope and anticipation for Terry Vert.

A new turkey hunter, she had already taken one bird that spring. And in the closing days of Missouri's spring season, she was intent on getting her second.

So she got permission to hunt from a landowner not far from Springfield, scouted the property, spotted turkeys and woke up early the next morning intent on heading to the spot where she had seen them.

"The landowner told me that no one had hunted turkeys on his land in 10 years," Vert said, "so I thought I would have the place to myself."

But as she slipped through a patch of cedars on the way to her intended hunting spot, she learned otherwise. First, she heard a blast. Then, she felt her arm drop to her side and her gun drop.

"At first, I thought my gun had misfired," she said. "But I'm always real careful.

"I don't even chamber a shell until I set up. I didn't know what had happened."

Moments later, she realized she had been shot. A 14-year-old boy, accompanied by his uncle, had committed turkey hunting's cardinal mistake: He had fired at rustling in the brush instead of first identifying his target.

Vert felt a burning sensation in her arm, but didn't think she was hurt that bad at first. But she soon learned differently.

She had taken the full brunt of the shot from 32 yards away. She had multiple pellets in her, affecting major organs such as her heart and lungs.

"After a while, I started having trouble breathing," she said. "My lungs had been ruptured.

"But I stayed calm. The other hunters helped me, and I was able to call for help with my cell phone."

Vert's account of the accident was backed by reports from the Missouri Department of Conservation, which investigated the incident.

Vert was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Springfield, where she was in surgery for several hours. Surgeons worked to repair major organs and found that both of her lungs had collapsed and three pellets were in her heart sac.

But Vert was a survivor. She went home in a week, feeling lucky to be alive.

"If the boy had been using a bigger shell, I don't think I would be here today," she said.

Some people would get as far away from turkey hunting as possible after going through what Vert did.

Not her.

She remembers lying in her hospital bed, jokingly asking a conservation investigator, "Can we extend the turkey season a few days so I can get out again?"

And she remembers the reply: "I don't think you're going to be in any shape to go hunting again for a while."

Vert looks back at that interchange and laughs. It tells a lot about her desire to go turkey hunting.

Brought up in California, she was never exposed to hunting as she grew up and didn't know much about it. But when she moved to Missouri and heard friends talk about how exciting turkey hunting was, she decided to tag along.

She started off with a camera, but by 2004 she was carrying a gun. When she took a nice-sized bird on her first hunt, she was hooked.

"The thought of not going hunting again was never an option," she said. "I just love it too much.

There's nothing better than sitting in the woods as the sun comes up and listening to the world come to life."

Vert didn't blame the sport - she still asserts that turkey hunting is safe. Department of Conservation records support that opinion.

Officials say there is an average of eight to 10 accidents involving two parties each spring season - a small percentage of the almost 150,000 hunters who go out in Missouri.

"Any accident is one too many," said Larry Yamnitz, field chief of law enforcement for the Department of Conservation. "But we feel we're making progress in reducing accident rates."

Vert isn't vindictive toward the boy who made a mistake and shot her.

"Some people were upset with me that I wasn't bitter about what happened," she said. "But that isn't my way.

"That boy didn't go out and say, `I'm going to shoot someone today.' He made a mistake, and he was devastated about what he had done.

"When he came to see me in the hospital, I told him: 'I hope this doesn't keep you from ever going hunting again. I know it's not going to stop me.' "

The Missouri Department of Conservation revoked the boy's hunting privileges for two years. Meanwhile, Vert struggled to put her life back together.

"I had dreams of the accident for eight months," she said. "I couldn't even go out in public for a while."

Vert found healing from an unlikely source.

Last spring, she jumped headlong into the sport some expected her to walk away from.

She went on a marathon turkey hunt in pursuit of the sport's holy grail, the prestigious Royal Slam.

That honor is for hunters who take each of five species of turkeys - the eastern, Rio Grande, Gould's, Merriam's and Osceola.

It takes some hunters years to complete that list. Vert put herself on a deadline. She wanted to be done by May 8, the anniversary of her accident.

She set out April 1 for Texas and took her Rio Grande turkey there. Then she flew to Florida and shot an Osceola bird. She went on to take a Gould's turkey in Mexico with a bow, a Merriam's bird in New Mexico and an eastern in Kansas.

Then on May 8, she returned to the land where she had been shot and took a deep breath.

"It really was a feeling of great accomplishment, having completed that Royal Slam," she said. "It became part of the healing for me."

Vert still carries reminders of that terrible day in the spring of 2005.

She still has pellets inside her, and that has caused problems with lead poisoning. Doctors have even issued dire warnings about the need for future surgeries if things don't get better.

But Vert hasn't let that dampen her enthusiasm for the Missouri turkey season, which will open Monday and continue through May 6.

When the season starts, she plans to be in the woods again.

"The turkey season can't come soon enough for me," she said Wednesday as she scouted land she intends to hunt. "It's just something that I love."