Members of the Northwest Towns Sportsmen's Club love to hunt and fish, and even use bows and arrows. However, last week they traded all their outdoor gear for aprons and baking sheets.
For the sixth year in a row, they formed an assembly line of sorts to make venison jerky for the troops.
Working at the American Legion Hall in Arlington Heights, they turned 400 pounds of ground deer meat donated by club members from this season's harvest, into venison strips.
"It's got a distinctive flavor," says Brian Halwix, of Union who coordinated the effort. "It's definitely tastes like game, but if any of these guys over there are hunters, it truly is a taste of home."
Members say the jerky is a high-protein snack that will provide instant energy for soldiers who may be away from their base for an entire day.
"They could take a handful of these jerky strips, put them in their pocket, and be good to go," says John Fern of Schaumburg.
At first glance, it looks like they are working with ground beef. Wearing gloves, they shape the ground meat into rolls, and feed it into a "jerky gun" that shoots out strips of meat.
Each strip is carefully laid on a tray. Later, they will be dehydrated in special ovens, purchased for the annual service project. Once they bake for six hours, they will be packaged into vacuum-sealed containers, ready for shipment.
"These guys are over there risking their lives for us, for our freedom," said Ron Sallee of Ingleside, club president. "This is the least we can do -- give them a little taste of home."
What makes the project even more compelling, members said, is the chance to prepare jerky for a local soldier, Army Capt. Court Harris of Arlington Heights, who is serving in Afghanistan.
"We're thrilled that to know that the person on the other end is a local boy," Fern added. "We can't wait to meet him."
Harris is a 2003 graduate of St. Viator High School and a 2007 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is on his second tour in the Middle East, after earlier serving in Bahrain and Kuwait.
In Afghanistan, Harris is on special assignment, serving as the executive officer to the senior U.S. commander in the western region. He leads a specialty unit made up of 150 American soldiers as well as 100 Italian and Spanish troops, all part of the NATO operation.
They are based near the city of Herat, which is Afghanistan's third largest city, and working with local Afghanis to build up the region's resources and infrastructure.
His father, state Rep. David Harris, served more than 30 years in the Illinois National Guard, including as Adjutant General. He watched hunt club members convert their prized harvest into hearty snacks for the troops.
"I can't thank you enough," Harris said. "What you're doing, as something coming from home, means a lot. On behalf of my son, I thank you."
In order to make the shipment complete, Halwix appealed to local businesses and he found instant support.
Kraft Foods donated cases of Oreos, Cheese Nips and Wheat Thins (all requested by the soldiers), while Wayne's Meat Market in Marengo ground all the meat, and New Dimensions Precision Machinery in Union, offered to ship the 200 boxes.
"Everyone I approached was eager to help," Halwix says. "
Club members expect to ship the packages this month and they look forward to hosting Harris at one of their meetings in July, when he completes his tour.