Specks were the targets this afternoon, a sunny day near the beginning of the 2013 Arkansas waterfowl season.
Cole Croteau was on his way back with a fallen goose when guide Jim Gignac got his attention quickly.
“Cole” he said in as loud a voice as he dared. “Get down quick. Geese on the way.”
Croteau planted himself face down on the ground, feeling the burning excitement of the approaching geese making his heart beat faster. At least he thought that was what it was.
The geese responded well and turned into the decoys. After the shots rang out and the coast was clear Croteau leaped to his feet in what looked like celebration. At least that is what everyone thought until he started swatting at the fire ants crawling on him. He had dropped onto an ant pile and was dancing a jig trying to get them off.
In typical fashion, he recalled it all with a smile.
“I was trying not to move, barely able to wait until the shots were fired,” he said. “I was never so glad to hear a gun go off in my life.”
Croteau is like so many 16-year-old boys. He loves being in the outdoors and spending time with his family and friends. He wants to be there when the sun rises and the promise of a new day in the field unfolds. He needs to see the ducks and geese take to the sky, to smell the burned powder, to laugh at himself and his hunting partners when shots are missed and rejoice when they do not.
He could be any young man learning the ways of the hunt and the joy within it. However, he is not like everyone else.
Cole has cystic fibrosis.
Cystic fibrosis (otherwise known as CF) is a recessive genetic disorder affecting primarily the lungs but also the pancreas, liver, and digestive tract in the human body. Mucus, digestive juices and sweat are all produced by cells. Normally they are thin and slick but the gene that causes cystic fibrosis turns these secretions sticky and thick. The primary effects are scarring in the lungs (fibrosis) and the formation of cysts in the pancreas. All CF patients develop diabetes as well, just to add insult to injury. Difficulty breathing is a main symptom of the disease because of frequent lung infections along with increased sinus infections. CF turns a fun activity into an act of labor.
But Croteau does not allow any of this to stop him from having a normal life. He has to work hard to stay healthy enough to do things most people take for granted but he does what he must. His father Eric helps him stay in line and will make him back off if he sees his son pushing himself to hard
“Sometimes I just let him rest if I can see in his eyes that he is worn out,” Eric Croteau said. “He will keep pushing himself because he loves people and the outdoors so much. But I always have to remember that while his mind is willing; his body just can’t tolerate the strain.”
Eric started hunting as a child and naturally brought Cole into the sport at a young age. He remembers taking Cole out when he was very young, before he’d turned 10.
“Cole has always wanted to be a part of whatever I was doing,” he said. “So taking him hunting was just something that I did and continue to do. He loved it from the very beginning, but with Cole it was always a little different. He realized early on that just being there is what really mattered more than the game in the bag.”
Cole agreed with his father.
“It has always been about the camaraderie for me and the overall experience,” he said with his winning smile. “I enjoy the people I am hunting with, to hear their stories and tell them some of mine too. That is what I love about waterfowl hunting.”
Cole and Eric live in Georgia, not exactly the heart of duck hunting in the United States. Eric really wanted to put Cole on a great hunt so he turned to Stuttgart for his son’s trip of a lifetime. This choice would set a chain of events in motion that would create a special bond between a Michigan native transplanted to Arkansas and a boy and his father from Georgia.
They tried to make the trip happen at first through a charity organization but were unable to do so since it involved hunting and that created liability issues. So as often happens in this age, word got out through social media that Cole wanted to come to Stuttgart. Local hunter and guide Charles Petty soon heard about it and told his friend Gignac about Cole and his desire to hunt in Stuttgart. That was all it took.
Gignac has lived in the Stuttgart area for eight years. He has earned the respect and admiration of that community by proving that a “Yankee” can indeed adapt to the local ways and excel. He and his son Jim have become fixtures in the duck-hunting scene and are known as great hunters and great guys.
When Gignac heard about a kid with CF wanting to hunt the area he jumped at this chance to make it happen.
“I didn’t have any idea what cystic fibrosis was or what it did to a person but I quickly found out,” Gignac recalled. “I soon got in touch with Eric and Cole and lined them up to come over Christmas Day, 2011. The CrossHeirs Retreat Center donated a place for them to stay and the waterfowl industry sent products from all over for the hunt.”
Gignac said that they lined the gifts up around the fireplace and waited for Cole to arrive.
“The look on that boy’s face was priceless,” Gignac said with a chuckle. “He said it was his best Christmas ever.”
What happened over the course of the time they spent together on that hunt is very unique. The man and the boy became like family. Gignac soon became “Uncle Joe” to Cole and their friendship grew immediately.
Cole remembers their first meeting well.
“It didn’t feel like Joe was a stranger to me and my Dad, it was as if we had known him forever,” he said.
The Gignac and Croteau families stayed in touch after that memorable Christmas and soon an idea was born — Cole’s Commanders.
Gignac explained the thought process behind a guide service that is much more than that alone.
“We wanted to start a new outfitting business in the Stuttgart area with a twist,” he said.
The “we” consists of Gignac, his son Jim, Eric Croteau and Eric’s longtime friend Trey Bowman.
“Cystic Fibrosis is a disease that can tear families apart,” Gignac said. “Our purpose is to provide families with assistance in paying bills, paying for prescriptions, and even sending them on vacations just to get away for a short time to escape the realities of the disease.”
Gignac and his team make many sacrifices to help those with CF.
“We helped a family this past year to pay the very high deductible on a lung transplant,” Gignac said. “It was a hardship on the business financially but we felt it was the right thing to do.”
I was fortunate to be able to travel to Stuttgart over the Thanksgiving break during the 2013 season. Cole and his father would be there and we would meet for the first time.
Gignac had set up the Cole’s Commander enclosed trailer across from the stage that would crown another World Duck Calling Champion the next day. He was alone when I arrived but we would soon be joined by Cole, his father, Bowman, and Jim Gignac.
I had spent time with Joe Gignac in the past and I knew he was a kind and gregarious man that immediately makes one feel at home. The others were exactly like that and soon that feeling of unfamiliarity was replaced with a comfort that only kindred spirits can share. Cole was bright eyed and friendly and he gave off a positive aura.
“Cole never complains, ever, about anything,” Gignac said later. “He cares deeply about those around him. Once, in Atlanta where he lives, Cole saw groups of homeless people under a bridge near his home. It was winter and due to be very cold that night. He had one of his buddies take him to the bank so he could withdraw some of his savings. He then used the money to buy hamburgers to distribute to those people under the bridge. That is the kind of young man he is.”
Cole received a special gift this past season in the form of a Purple Heart medal. The medal came from Sergeant Bryant McNeil, a disabled Army Ranger who earned it when he was wounded, losing his leg, in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2009.
McNeil explained why he felt Cole deserved his Purple Heart.
“I was awarded that medal fighting to help the helpless,” McNeil said. “Once I lost my leg, I understood the physical and mental strain that Cole goes through every day of his life. Cole deserves so much more but that is what I had to give.”
McNeil heard of Cole’s Commanders through Sergeant Major Brian Hise, a friend of Eric Croteau.
“Sgt. Hise knew I loved to hunt ducks so he put me in contact with Joe,” McNeil said. “Joe invited me to come over and hunt with him in Stuttgart and I had a wonderful time. Then I learned what it was all about and wanted to do more. Now I feel like a part of Cole’s family.”
McNeil will be guiding alongside Gignac and his retriever Voodoo this fall.
Cole was too tired to hunt with us the next morning but I was able to go out with Croteau and Gignac to their flooded timber area bordering Bayou Meto. This is a great place to experience what makes Arkansas hunting great, ducks falling through trees while the sun gleams on them from above.
We had a good hunt, the ducks worked well and they cupped to the seductive calling coming from our blind. Voodoo did great work and brought all the game to hand. It would be hard to imagine a better morning; I just wished that Cole could have come along to enjoy it with us.
My waterfowl hunting experience spans more than 30 years and I have never run across an operation such as this. The dedication and selflessness that these men demonstrate is truly remarkable.
Their mission statement says it all: “To use our passion and experience in hunting to raise awareness and money to the cause and effects of Cystic Fibrosis and to enrich the lives of those battling this horrible disease.”
To learn more about Cole’s Commanders Guide Service and to donate to their cause please visit ColesCommanders.com.