Tennessee Valley Deputy Regional Coordinator Marilyn Rogan shares a great account of the recent trip taken by 50 veterans to Captiva, Florida for a trip of a lifetime: Fish with a Hero. 

Fish with a Hero is an annual event spearheaded by Larry Kendzior and put on by PHWFF volunteers and local volunteers in Florida. At this event, members of PHWFF that are chosen by their peers, are able to come to Florida for a fishing trip. This event is an all-expenses paid trip for the members who are chosen. This year, the Fish With A Hero event expanded to include events in both the Florida Keys and Captiva Island (in South West Florida) as well.


 

Everyone was excited to take the trip sponsored by Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc.  Larry Kendzior had worked hard in the area to secure “special” donations for this trip.  Larry, a veteran himself had been putting together special trips for veterans from middle Tennessee for several years now.  However, this was a new location, unknown to many who took the trip.  Venturing into the unknown is nothing new for fifty disabled veterans (35 male and 15 females) from middle Tennessee.

They are most thankful for all that PHWFF does for them and this is one trip they look forward to more than any of our other outings, so we are on our way.  Our big red Wise bus arrived in the evening of October 23, 2017, stopping in Brentwood, TN to pick up veterans from the Nashville Stand Down and Fort Campbell programs.  On to our next stop for the Murfreesboro program and then down to Ringgold, GA to get the Knoxville and Cookeville programs.  We are on our way for the long ride to South Seas Island Resort, Captiva, Florida.

Even though the bus ride is long and hard, the spirits are high and everyone knows it will be well worth it.  In Valdosta, GA we change bus drivers and our new bus driver is “Elmo.”  Yes, he says he wishes his Mother hadn’t named him that, but she did and he is struck with it.

Finally, we arrive at our destination.  Everyone is buzzing about how beautiful the island is and how excited they are to be able to fish in this area.  They can hardly wait to get off the bus and stretch.

It is now 10:00AM on the 24th, while waiting for our rooms, Larry briefed us on our schedule.  Previously, we had filled out a survey about things we liked, book, music, etc.  The Military Support Foundation, Inc. had made individual bags for each veteran and volunteer with chocolates (a must for the ladies), magazines, books, CD’s, sunscreen, lip balm, and many other items that would entertain and help the veterans.  Thank you MSFI.  Everyone enjoyed their special treat.

Next on our agenda was a trip to the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Tour.  It was very interesting, our National Park Ranger was very excited to see us and her enthusiasm brighten our day. After an enjoyable tour of the refugee, we boarded the bus for the resort.

We checked into our suites which were extremely nice and took a quick nap before dinner. We boarded the bus and headed for a reception at George and Wendy’s Seafood Grill.  Many towns’ folk were there to greet us with cameras and lights.  The Grill was buzzing with excitement over our arrival.  What a wonderful warm welcome. One of our veterans were chosen to draw the winning ticket for a Hobie Kayak, which was part of a fundraiser for our trip.  After introductions and welcomes we were treated to a delicious meal of prime rib, salmon, and many other scrumptious delights.  Full tummies and tired bodies we headed back to South Seas Island Resort to enjoy a good night’s sleep before fishing the next day.

However, the next day the winds were at 25 knots and much too windy to go out on a boat.  A little disappointed everyone adjusted quickly and went to plan B.  We took to the shore and marina, getting top notch help from professional fly fishermen in the area. We had so many choices of things to do that day it was hard to decide.  The Hobie kayaks were fun to paddle around in and fish from.  Many caught fish at the Marina.  Some went for lessons on casting in the wind, but all in all it was a blessed day of fun fishing and relaxing.

Dinner tonight was to be a Luau at Sunset Beach, but the winds were too high. We didn’t let that stop us from having a wonderful time at dinner indoors.  Our meal again was out of this world.  But the topper of the night was “Elmo.”  No one knew how talented our bus driver was, but I had figured it out and gotten permission from Larry to allow him to strum his guitar and sing a few songs for us.  He was terrific and everyone enjoyed his music.

Early to rise the next day as the weather was cooperating and the boats were arriving.  Our breakfast buffets each day were super good foods, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit and the best coffee.  After breakfast we picked up our box lunch from Bailey’s for ourselves and the Sea Captains.  Then off to fish the ocean blue.  The waters were so beautiful with tiny white caps lapping ashore, sunny and warm.  It was a perfect day for fishing. Each veteran was assigned a Sea Captain, with a challenge to catch the biggest fish.  The prize would be given out at dinner. The bonding between the Sea Captains and veterans were fantastic to watch.

After hours of fishing and returning back to Bayside Marina, you could see the results written on each person’s face.  Smiles from ear to ear.  Tired but happy with the days catch, each couldn’t wait to tell the others of their success on the waters.

Our last night was spent sharing fishing stories and exchanging phone numbers and addresses.  The bonding experience is something that can’t be described on paper.  The healing effect of the trip had taken place.  Not to take away from this important part of the trip, we had a few extras we had planned for the evening for those veterans who had helped their fellow veterans.

Russ Ambrose, our Tennessee Valley Coordinator had several special awards to be given out.  Of course, our utmost award went to Larry Kendzior for an outstanding event.  How much this means to the veterans Larry you will never know, but I know they appreciate you and the memories will last forever in their minds. Larry received the Distinguished Service Award.  One of the highest given to anyone in our organization.

The second Distinguished Service Award went to Tommy Hogan.  Tommy had help start the first program in Tennessee over eight years ago.  He worked hard to get PHWFF going and along with Bill Coyne, they developed programs for PHWFF in three states.  Tennessee’s 13 programs are attributed to them.  They work long hard hours to promote and grow PHWFF programs.  Tommy, a special thank you for your service, not only to your country, but to PHWFF.

Our third award was presented by Marilyn Rogan, Deputy Regional Coordinator for TN Valley.  It was a special award for me to give to a special veteran.  Charlie Trawick had befriend her and her husband Bruce when they first volunteered over 5 years ago.  He was always there for the veterans in the Murfreesboro program and anyone else that needed it.  He started the Mental Health Council with the Murfreesboro Veterans Hospital, working with the doctors at the VA to help them understand how the veterans felt about the care they were being given.  He worked outside of the Mental Health Department at the VA as an advocate for the veterans.  Meeting with the doctors who could change policy allowed him to be a liaison for the veteran. The Mental Health Council gained the much needed recognition at the hospital allowing many positive changes to be made for the veterans. He spent eight years of hard work with the VA to help his brothers and sisters get the best mental health care possible.  I have never been prouder to present an award to anyone as I was to present the Distinguished Service Award to Charlie.

The next day we were homeward bound with many wonderful memories.  Thank you to all at PHWFF and Larry Kendzior for all you have done for us to make this trip possible.  I am sure you are like me, it isn’t the thank you that matters it is the result of helping someone have a better life. That is all the thank you that is needed.

What a wonderful trip, memories and friendships we enjoyed.