The alarms go off at 5:00 in the morning across Western Kansas. It's an early start to the day for pheasant hunters.
In the lobby of Garden City's Comfort Inn, dozens gather to share breakfast -- and, in a twist, stories of their time in combat.
For 18-year-old Mackenzie Nix and her step-father, Tim Telinde, seeing the more than one dozen Ft. Riley Soldiers gathered together is the long awaited result of a nearly year long project.
Nix will graduate from Garden City High School this Spring. In order to receive her diploma, she is required to complete what is called the "Buff Project," named after the school's Buffalo mascot. It's a way for students to give back to their community.
Nix got her project idea from Telinde, who has long wanted to find a way to bring combat veterans to Western Kansas for a weekend of pheasant hunting. Telinde retired from the army after six years of service, and has long wanted to give back to his brothers in arms.
But what grew out of the project was more than anybody anticipated.
"I didn't expect this at all," says Nix.
The greater Garden City community jumped at the chance to help Nix and Telinde bring the project to life. More than 70 companies and individuals donated thousands of dollars in time, supplies and products to bring the Ft. Riley soldiers and their families to the area.
"I'm hoping they enjoy it and have a weekend away from the stresses of everyday life," Nix says.
Hotel rooms for every family were paid for. Meals were taken care of. Soldiers received a brand new shotgun to use on the hunt, while their wives were given the red-carpet treatment in town, and their children enjoyed kid-friendly projects.
For Telinde, the dream is bittersweet. It was born of tremendous loss and heartache. Three years ago, Telinde's 18-year-old son died in a tragic car accident. In the last three months, his wife - Nix's mother - has undergone multiple brain surgeries following an illness five years ago. Altogether, it was almost enough to make him want to stop hunting entirely. But he says he's glad he never gave up.
"It takes very little effort to help people," says Telinde. "This is a memory my community and these families will never forget. That's how you make your mark."
For the soldiers, it is more than just a vacation. It is a chance to be themselves among others who share their experiences.
All of the soldiers are combat veterans. Many have survived life-threatening injuries in battles overseas.
First Sergeant Kevin Walker was nearly killed in May 2004 when a roadside bomb exploded during his tour of duty in Baghdad. He spent 20 days in a coma, and lost an eye.
"I had to learn to be an adult all over again," Walker says. He says he feels honored to be invited to participate in this weekend's Hero Hunt.
"You go away for three or four days and get out of your normal routine," he says. "And when you get here, you're around others just like you. You forget your injuries and basically are treated like a normal person."
For Walker's wife, the invitation was especially touching.
"In my husband's eyes, he's just a soldier," Patti Walker said through tears. "He couldn't understand why Tim [Telinde] would invite him to this. Tim called and said he was a hero, and that he was special... The people in Kansas are amazing. They touch more lives than they can ever imagine."
Telinde says he's proud his step-daughter took on the project. He says he helped her along the way, but insists she did most of the work.
"It's gratifying to see your children want to give," says Telinde. "And especially to those in service, which is so important."
Nix says she just wanted to say thank you to the many soldiers who risk their lives and sacrifice so much to serve the country.
"Protecting our freedom is what it's all about," she says. "Respecting this country is very important to me."
On Saturday, the soldiers and their families will dedicate a community tree in downtown Garden City to honor fallen soldiers Travis Bachman, Clint Upchurch and Seth Algrim -- all from the Garden City area.
There are plans to feature some of the soldiers in this weekend's hunt next Spring on a new show to air on Fox Sports Southwest. More details are expected early next year.