A Warrior’s Weekend: Fishing as Therapy for Wounded and Recovering Soldiers in Port O’Connor, Texas
By Jennifer Chesak For wounded U.S. Army soldiers, fishing is just what the doctor ordered. The Warrior's Weekend, held annually in Port O'Connor, Texas, pairs soldiers with volunteer anglers and boaters for a day out on the water. Held May 22, 2010, the event brought scores of volunteers in more than 100 boats to aid the soldiers. "The camaraderie, the outpouring from the public," says Sergeant Ronnie Gullion, "it's all part of the healing process. You get to share your story with somebody." Some soldiers who attend Warrior's Weekend are in wheelchairs, while others are recovering from brain injuries, severe burns, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "The event helped introduce me to being around a lot of people at once again," says Jason Elman, who caught a speckled trout. Ed Bailey adds, "The minute we stepped on the boat, they treated us like family." If you'd like to volunteer to take wounded soldiers hunting or fishing, visit
Photos by Mike Calabro www.wwiaf.org or www.friendsofamericanheroes.org. The following soldiers who attended the Warrior's Weekend give their thoughts on perseverance and what fishing means to them.
After he was diagnosed with a combat-related illness that has caused liver disease, Ronnie Gullion, 39, who had completed tours in Bosnia and Desert Storm, went through four rounds of chemo. His illness prevents him from returning to active duty, and doctors advise Gullion not to work at all, but as Guillon says, “I believe I should earn my money.” So he came up with a creative solution. Guillon invented a volunteer position for himself at Fort Cambell in Kentucky to aid soldiers in recovery. He pairs soldiers with volunteers and organizations looking to take soldiers out hunting or fishing. His program, called HOOAH, which stands for Healing Outside of a Hospital, is part of the U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Unit. “A lot of these guys have hunted and fished before, and then they end up somewhere to recuperate and they don’t have a fishing pole with them,” explains Gullion, “and it turns out there are a lot of people out there willing to help.”
“Learning the different types of fishing techniques gives me a chance to buy new toys,” says Rodger Benton. Recovering in San Antonio from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Iraq, Benton, 47, is enjoying the transition from freshwater to saltwater fishing. But the Gulf Point Michigan native says he misses being able to drop a line just about anywhere in his home state. “Sure, Texas has the ocean, he says, “but I always tell people that we have inland seas.” Benton, who has also served in Afghanistan, has a long list of outdoor activities that help him relieve stress. “Soldiers are in such a limelight,” Benton explains. “We have to cross our Ts.” The strains of recuperating can be overwhelming, he adds, but he advises that one of the best ways to recover is to get out on the water. “You can heal outside of the hospital.”
“I did it for the parking.” That’s the motto scrawled underneath the handicap symbol tattooed on Adam Peacock’s bicep. Three weeks from his deployment for his second tour in Iraq, a car hit Peacock, 29, while he was riding his motorcycle to a rail unit. He lost his left leg and suffered a traumatic brain injury. “No use moping and crying about it,” he says. “It’s not going to grow back. The only thing I can’t do is the ‘Hokey Pokey,'” adds the avid hunter and angler. Peacock killed his first elk in a spot-and-stalk hunt this year. He says he hunted and fished as a child, but now he has more time. “I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone else,” says Peacock, who rides his motorcycle with the aid of a trike kit. “I’m just trying to prove to myself that I can do it. Even though you’re disabled, you can’t let your injury beat you.”
Jason Elman, 21, served 15 months in Iraq, but he has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of an accident that occurred stateside while he was on his way to re-class for another job within the U.S. Army. Elman suffered a severe head injury that left him feeling apprehensive about being around large groups of people. As a man dealing with anger and depression, Elman says a day of fishing provides an escape from the drudgery of recovery. “It’s a nice way to just get away and get out there,” he says. Elman is contemplating advancing his education in the future but his focus right now is on healing. “I’m just working hard at getting back to being as normal as I can be,” he explains. “You go through problems, but you’ve got to get up, dust yourself off and drive on.”
“I grew up out in the country, and fishing is something I’ve always done,” says Cory Linkous. While serving in Iraq, Linkous, 22, was wounded when something hit his vehicle and a metal rod became lodged in his hip. The Texas native suffered kidney and liver failure and spent a grueling year recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, doing everything from physical therapy to steroid injections and dialysis. His injury and recuperation have only solidified his drive to keep his country safe. Linkous is medically retired from the U.S. Army, but has plans to work for Homeland Security soon. Meanwhile, he won’t complain about a little extra time to hook fish.
Most people use smart phones to send emails and text messages on the go. Eric Allen, 34, uses his to remind him to take medications and attend doctor’s appointments. “Things that people take for granted,” he explains, “I’ve had to relearn how to do.” Allen suffered a brain injury while serving in Baghdad. The injury caused speech and short-term memory problems in addition to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having grown up fly fishing the Gallatin River in Montana, Allen, who has served in the U.S. Army for 14 years, relishes any opportunity to get out and fish. Now, based in San Antonio and honing his saltwater angling skills, Allen says he’s interested in getting a boat and that he and his wife are trying to add a little crewmember to the family.
“It’s been a rough road,” says Shane Ray. “There were times when I didn’t even want to get out of bed, but with the support of my wife and kids, I pushed on.” Ray, 33, was on a night patrol when his vehicle ran over two anti-tank mines. His vehicle caught fire, and more than 60 percent of his body was burned. He spent three years in physical therapy and now volunteers as a greeter at the information desk at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he was treated. He sees many other soldiers going through their own recovery struggles. His words of advice: “You need to be able to talk about your injury to be able to heal.” Ray now rides his mountain bike about nine miles a day and he fishes whenever he gets an opportunity. “It’s just a relaxing sport for me.”
“You get to spend time with your buddy out on the water,” Paul Roberts says about fishing. “There’s a little bit of competition, and you forget about your worries.” An IED (Improvised Explosive Device) hit Roberts’ truck while he was serving in Afghanistan. He was one of three men that survived the hit, but Roberts suffered third-degree burns to his legs, wrists, back and face. He’s had numerous surgeries, has undergone painful physical therapy sessions and wears compression garments so that his nerves don’t fire. He is also relearning to walk, but in the meantime, he’s having fun playing wheelchair basketball. Roberts, who has also served in Iraq, says he would eventually like to return to duty. “I have to get my body back on track,” he says. A big part of that includes kicking back with friends and trying to catch a few fish.
A spinal chord injury that rendered him a paraplegic 24 years ago inspired Kendrick Kahler, 47, to become a physician. “I have been a patient myself and I understand their emotional needs,” says Kahler, who was injured in a jeep rollover when he was serving in Eqypt’s Sinai Desert. After medical school, Kahler chose to do Christian medical work in Thailand and in Cambodia, where he formed a clinic in the nation’s capital. “If you pray about it, and God puts a certain desire in your heart,” he says, “you must pursue it.” As a former runner on West Point’s varsity track team, letting go of running was hard for Kahler, but he’s taken up swimming instead. In fact, when he’s out fishing, he often gets jealous of the fish he doesn’t catch. “I’d love to jump in and swim,” he says. “There’s just so much freedom in that.”
“Stay focused. You can’t let anything get you down,” says Octavio Servin. Servin, who has served in Iraq, has to wear special sunglasses for light sensitivity and suffers from chronic migraines and back pain. His symptoms are a result of a car accident that occurred on a foggy morning in Colorado and was the fault of a driver on a cell phone. “He actually saved my life,” says Servin of the driver who rushed to wrap his head. “We’re good friends now.” A traumatic brain injury caused cognitive and speech problems. After a long recovery, Servin was finally able to enjoy his first vacation in three years and he chose to spend it on the Texas Coast fishing for the first time. “I had a blast,” he says. Servin will take his medical boards for the U.S. Army soon and return to duty if possible.
Kimberly Geofroy-Clary, 28, tells fellow soldiers dealing with depression to “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.” She’s referring to fishing. “It’s good to be doing something new to take your mind off of things.” After catching four redfish and one sheepshead at the Warrior’s Weekend event, she was proud to report, “I was told I was a natural at it.” Geofroy-Clary has been battling depression since she returned from her tour in Iraq. “Soldiers in recovery always need some kind of support,” she says. “Whether it’s a family member or a friend.” Camaraderie drew her to the military and it is what is motivating her to get well and return. Geofroy-Clary says she was glad to find friendship out on the water in Port O’Connor.
For Marine Ryan Voltin, 29, a recent day of fishing with his daughter gave him the motivation to move forward. “Having the chance to relax and be out in the environment opened my imagination,” he says. Voltin has spent the last three years in San Antonio recovering from severe burns and a leg amputation. “I’ve had so many surgeries I’ve stopped counting.” His injuries occurred as a result of friendly fire during a training accident in Jordan. “It’s been a long, slow, painful road,” he adds. “But it’s unbelievable the strides I’ve made. I never would have though the human body could tolerate so much. I’m very blessed.” He tells fellow wounded soldiers, “You go from being self sufficient to being dependent, but you have to let go of that for the time being. You have to embrace the support. I can see where I came out so much better having that perspective.”
Rob Pickel, 36, says he used to fish from shore as a kid, but now he’s finally had a chance to fish out on the bay. It’s kind of like taking baby steps. Pickel says he’s going to walk again. “I want to prove to my kids that you can’t let anything get you down. I want to be a good role model.” Pickel’s ankles were fractured after he was involved in an explosion while serving during Operation Enduring Freedom. “My other biggest motivation is mixed martial arts,” he says. “I really want to be able to fight again.” His doctor finally gave him the green light to start putting weight on his left leg. “I might not be hopping and skipping, but it’s a start.”
“I’m working on integrating back into society and finding something that I really like to do,” says Jason March. “I love to hunt and fish so maybe I’d enjoy working at a Bass Pro Shop or something like that.” March, 38, was shot behind the right ear by a sniper while serving in Iraq. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and now attends rehabilitation classes through Easter Seals to work on cognitive and job-readiness skills. “It takes the support and love of your family,” he says. “If I didn’t have the support of my wife and son, I don’t know which direction I’d be going right now.” March is hoping his new direction will lead him toward a job that involves his hobbies. “Maybe I can have my own hunting show,” he jokes.
“Do whatever you can to have fun when you can,” says Chris Mazander. “Then remember the days that you do have fun to get you through.” Chris is still recovering from a neck and back injury he incurred while serving in Iraq. Despite chronic pain Mazander, 26, stays active camping all over the country with his family, fly fishing in Colorado, where he currently lives, and hunting for deer and elk in Arkansas, his home state. He hits up the beautiful lakes there, too, especially Lake Ouachita. “Fishing is something you can do to totally relax yourself,” he says. But Mazander likes to throw a little competition into the mix now and then with the occasional bass tourney.
“Fishing is very soothing and relaxing, and there’s always good stories to tell,” says Brandon Ancar. He has served at Fort Hood, in Germany, and in Iraq. Ancar, 29, thankfully has not been wounded; however, he says his country and family are suffering with the current oil spill in the gulf. A Buras, Louisiana, native, Ancar has relatives in the shrimping and trawling businesses that are now facing hardships. Ancar says he never really had the knack for shrimping or working on the oilrigs. “The military seemed like a great stepping stone,” he says. “I played sports in high school, and joining the military was like joining a bigger team. You meet so many different people and it really infuses that brotherly quality.” Ancar urges everyone to remember to help protect the world’s delicate ecosystem so that generations to come can enjoy the soothing sport of fishing.
“There’s a pill for this, and there’s a pill for that, but sometimes a pill just can’t help you any,” says Andrew Young. “I don’t relax too much, but being out there fishing helps me relax.” Young, 48, has served 29 years in the U.S. Army and has completed tours in Germany, Turkey, and Korea. Four years ago, he was working as an instructor at a drill sergeant school when he was kicked in the head during hand-to-hand combat. The blow busted a blood vessel, causing brain damage. “I’ve got a headache that never goes away,” he explains. He’s had to learn to walk again and attends speech and physical therapy sessions. Easter Seals helps Young with reading comprehension. “Don’t give up,” he tells other wounded soldiers. “You’ve got to have the will power.”
“The sooner I get it done, the sooner I can go back home,” says Ed Bailey. The Kansas native is living in San Antonio while trying to get back to walking after his tibia was shattered and his quad muscle torn in a training accident. Bailey, 41, is one of three people in the United States trying out a new surgical technology that will regenerate his thigh muscle. “If we can do anything at all to help out some of these younger combat soldiers,” he says, “it’s worth a try.” Part of Bailey’s recuperation has been staying active. “I’ll hunt pretty much anything I’m allowed to hunt,” he says. “And fishing, you don’t have to think about your injury or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You’re just thinking about fishing.”
Martin “Pee Wee” Robles
“When you’re out there in the hunting stand, you have a lot of time to think about what you want to do in the future and what you’ve done in the past,” says Martin “Pee Wee” Robles. Robles, a Victoria, Texas, native, served in the U.S. Army during the Berlin Crisis. He had a stroke this past winter, but remains active hunting and fishing with his great grandchildren. “You go out there to relax and have a good day. I really enjoy just talking to people,” he says. Robles ran a committee to fillet all the fish caught at Warrior’s Weekend, and chatted up attendees about their hookups. “I like to catch redfish because they give you a battle.”
Shane Jose Parsons
Shane Jose Parsons, 24, calls himself lucky. “I don’t have to clip my toenails or wash my feet,” jokes the double amputee. “I can be as tall as I want to be, too.” He was wounded when a Humvee exploded in Ramadi, Iraq, three years ago. Parsons spent a month in a coma, and an anoxic brain injury forced him to have to relearn to read and write. Now, whether fishing, skiing, playing on a traveling hockey team, volunteering at a nature center, or promoting the use of therapy dogs, Parsons says he’s remaining as active as he can. “Quitting is the worst thing that I’ve ever heard. You’ve got to find that goal and tackle it.” Sometimes Parsons goals are as lofty as appearing on the Discovery Channel–he has as a motivational speaker–or as simple as catching that next fish.