Jonathon Blank slowly squeezed his rifle’s trigger. At more than 300 yards, his 7mm WSM bullet found its mark — a Kodiak Island mountain goat. It hit a touch behind the animal’s vitals. Within 3 seconds, Blank cycled the bolt and fired a follow-up shot, and it was good — just behind the shoulder. Blank had just killed his first mountain goat. Pretty standard hunting story, right?
It would be if Jonathon Blank hadn’t lost both legs in Afghanistan 12 years earlier and completed a Herculean odyssey few of us can even endeavor to imagine just to get to this moment, aided by the fierce dedication of his friends and fellow hunters along with many others who helped along the way.
“I’m already bringing unique challenges to the table [for a guide] that other hunters, well, not so much,” Blank said before the hunt.
Blank was severely injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) on a long-range recon mission while serving as a Recon Marine in the Corps’ elite 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. He subsequently underwent countless surgeries and years of recovery. Unfortunately, his amputations are so far above the knee that using prosthetics to cover mountain terrain is impossible.
So how the fuck did he get to the top of a mountain on Kodiak Island, Alaska, to kill a mountain goat?
Building an Exceptional Hunt
This story of epic people doing epic shit began in 2020 when Blank met Cole Kramer, owner, and operator of Kramer’s Kodiak Guide Service, at Black Rifle Coffee Company’s first Veteran Adaptive Athlete Shoot. Once they got to talking, they quickly discovered that they grew up in Kansas towns a mere hour’s drive apart.
“Jonathon was the first person from Kansas I’ve met who was affected by war,” Kramer said of his first encounter with Blank. “I instantly felt more of a bond with him because we were from the same area.”
Blank said he felt the connection, too. “And then I found out [Kramer] guided in Alaska and was, like, Wow! I’ve always wanted to go there,” he told Free Range American. “What hunter and fisherman doesn’t want to go to Alaska?”
Their meeting got plans rolling for a 2021 blacktail deer hunt on Kodiak Island. BRCC coordinated the event, and the plan was for Kramer to take Blank and a few others on the hunt, but Kramer ultimately canceled the trip due to bad weather and unsafe conditions. He said that the area started to get brutally cold.
“All the waterways and landing areas for the planes had frozen up,” he said. “So, I was frozen into the camp and had to cancel this trip for the guys two days before they left. I felt terrible.”
Compounding the disappointment, in 2021, our nation watched the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, where Blank had been physically modified by war 12 years earlier.
But two weeks later, Kramer reached out to the BRCC coordinator, asking if they wanted to put anyone in for the 2022 mountain goat drawing. They gave a list of names and included Blank as a candidate. Kramer agreed, knowing that if Blank drew the goat tag, it would take a lot of planning to help guide him through a mountainous area.
Blank drew a tag, and the planning began.
Kramer’s initial plan was to carry Blank inside a backpack. When the two of them began discussing the idea, it became clear that it wouldn’t be as simple as stuffing Blank in a regular pack and Kramer going on his way.
“I needed something I could bail off from if needed,” Blank said. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a backpack.”
The main issues they had to address were comfort and protection. Blank explained that he had a lot of “crazy bone growth” on his right side, where his femur used to be.
“The splinters of bone that are left started growing together. It basically feels like lava rock,” he said. “I have all of these areas where the bone protrudes very close to the skin. If I take a fall and can’t protect those areas, it would be a bad day for me.”
With Blank’s input, Kramer worked with Kevin Dana, owner of Barney’s Sports Chalet, to figure out which frame was right for carrying a man up a mountain. Since Kramer would have to carry Blank — who weighs 135 pounds — plus extra gear, he went top-shelf and went with the Frontier Gear of Alaska Freighter Frames.
“This was not a hunt where I was going to use something just because a company wanted to donate it,” he said. “Instead, I needed something that I know for a fact can handle this sort of load with zero issues.”
With the frame, some extra parts, and a little redneck ingenuity, Kramer modified the load shelf so that it sat higher up and gave Blank a comfortable place to ride.
A TAC Practice Round
With the rough pack build complete, Kramer asked Blank to shoot the Total Archery Challenge (TAC) event in Big Sky, Montana, about a month and a half before the hunt so they’d have a chance to test out the frame-carry concept.
Ahead of the event, Kramer stopped off at the Sitka Depot in nearby Bozeman. Sitka, which supplied Blank with custom hunting clothes for the deer hunt, offered to help adjust the custom frame.
With help from a Sitka representative, they reinforced the support to hold Blank’s weight better. They also fastened a pad from the Sitka turkey vest for the seat and padded the backrest. With the franken-frame complete, Kramer invited Blank to shoot the course and test it out.
“We got Jonathon out on the TAC course a day later. We put on about 6 miles that day in the mountains, and it went well,” Kramer said. “We made one last adjustment to the frame, and it was ready to go.”
“I could tell they had put a lot of thought into the pack,” Blank said. “As soon as I tried it for the first time, I realized their efforts were not in vain. It was the most comfortable rig I had ever been in.”
With a proof of concept in hand and a warm-up lap complete at TAC, everyone went their separate ways until the big hunt.
“I have always wanted to hunt a mountain goat,” Blank said. “Never ever, ever did I think that I was going to end up doing it in Alaska. That blew my mind.”
As for Kramer, he went home and continued training for the big event and hauling a heavy load up a mountain. He hiked the mountains around his town while, at times, carrying a Blank-sized pack. He also did CrossFit for full-body work-workouts and to fine-tune his stabilizer muscles, crucial for keeping steady on uneven terrain.
“You have to train for carrying heavy loads so you can physically and mentally understand how it’s going to feel,” Kramer said. “I didn’t want there to be any surprises.”
Blank’s Mountain Goat Hunt Begins
In early September, Blank arrived in Kodiak ready to hunt. They devised a plan where Kramer would carry Blank while the three other team members — BRCC’s Trevor Thompson and Kramer’s two cousins, Will and Doug — had all the food and gear they’d need as they pushed through goat country.
About two days after Blank arrived, they set out in the predawn hours and drove to the trailhead before throwing on their packs and heading up the mountain. The team started at sea level and hiked to an elevation of more than 2000 feet to reach goat country. Once they got into the alpine, they spotted goats.
They watched the herd and assessed the wind before donning white Tyvek painting suits to move up to a better position. With the all-white suits and distance from the goats, they hoped to fool them into thinking they were distant goats themselves as they moved.
“This wasn’t some handicapped hunt,” Kramer explained. “It wasn’t as far as some of the other places I go, but it was still a hell of a hike. It’s a place able-bodied men go into every year and still don’t get the job done.”
It was a pretty typical September day on Kodiak, with highs in the 50s. A low-hanging ceiling of clouds drizzled rain on the team intermittently and produced fog banks that would swallow mountains whole.
“This hunt was as close to the suck of combat and training. It’s the closest thing you can get to that brotherhood forged in combat. Everyone is out here suffering in hopes of accomplishing the same goal,” Blank later said of the experience. “Something about the suck bonds men together.”
Making the Shot
By the time they reached their second position, Kramer went up to peak over the rise of a saddle to watch the herd. Trevor and Blank were down by the backpacks. Then, two billy goats appeared out of thin air after the men had been sitting in position No. 2 for a while.
“The goats came out of a cloud bank. Trevor and I started slowly moving to get into position. Trevor was taking directions from [Kramer] about which billy looked the best and whispering directions to me. Unfortunately, I kept sliding down the mountain, so Trevor had to lay on me to help wedge me behind the gun,” Blank said.
Then came the moment of truth. Blank was as stable as he was going to get lying on the side of a steep hill. He squeezed. The bullet struck the goat a bit behind its vitals, and Blank quickly made a follow-up shot. The goat ran over the hill and out of view.
“When I saw it run out of view, I was concerned it went over the cliff on the backside,” Kramer said. “When we got over there, the goat died right on the ledge. It was a miracle that damn thing didn’t go off.”
With the goat down and daylight fading fast, the team decided to split up. Kramer and Blank went to set up camp while the rest of the group broke down the goat and hiked it down to them. They camped on a level spot in the same bowl where Blank had shot the goat.
The following day, they deboned the meat to save as much weight as possible, packed everything up, and headed down the mountain; each man carried more than 100 pounds.
“Cole didn’t complain once, nor did anyone else for that matter,” Blank said.
“I knew that Jonathon wanted to be doing more,” Kramer said. “The day we hiked out, he told me he wished he could do more and be more able to help out. It brought me to tears. I was like, ‘Jesus man, you got your legs fucking blown off for our country in some foreign land, and here you are worried about not doing enough.’
“Sitting there with Jonathon on your back, you have zero bitches possible,” Kramer added. “This man has no legs and would use his arms to get up the mountain if you asked him to. He deserves to have someone else to work their ass off for him.”
With the primary objective accomplished on the first day, and the goat packed off the mountain on day two, the team had a huge weight off their shoulders. Stress turned to pure joy when Blank killed his goat.
After that, everyone was on cloud nine, hiking out of the mountains despite the spine-compressing loads they had on their backs. With the hard work done, the goal shifted to giving Blank the full Kodiak experience.
“Once we got back to town, Jon was like this beam of light everywhere we went. People in town wanted to shake his hand, say congratulations, and hear the story,” Kramer said.
Airplanes, Fish, and Rodeo, Kodiak-Style
With the hunt completed earlier than expected, Blank wanted to experience as much of Kodiak as possible.
A state trooper and pilot jumped at the opportunity to give Blank an aerial tour of the island. From above, Blank admired what looked to him as an alien landscape.
“I was in awe of the terrain and everything it had, how blue the ocean was, the trees changing, and the rugged beauty of Kodiak. It takes your breath away,” he said.
After finishing the aerial tour, they went to a rodeo and accepted an invitation to a pub for a drink with the locals. Plenty of folks from the rodeo were there, and they wanted to spend time with Blank and hear his story.
The next day, they fished, taking turns catching their limit of halibut and then moving on to pacific cod.
“That was like little kid-level joy and elation. It was so fucking fun and cool,” Blank said. “The fish were hitting every time we got our lines down to the bottom. We were just raking them in. By the end of it, my wheelchair was buried in fish.”
The cherry on top of the epic trip came after the fishing trip. Kramer hired a local French chef to come and serve Blank and the team a special meal.
For appetizers, they ate mountain goat heart and pacific cod from the fishing trip, and for the main course, the chef served mountain goat backstraps.
“I remember arriving at the small Kodiak airport and thinking about what memories I would be taking away from this place,” Blank said. “When it came time to leave, I didn’t want to go back. I had a lot going on at home.”
“I wanted more adventure and distraction but knew it was time to get back to work. The trip couldn’t have gone more perfectly. It was everything I wanted and then some.”