For three years Freedom Alliance has benefited from the annual Grouper Grapple Offshore Fishing Tournament in Fort Meyers Beach, Florida.
This event was founded by Fort Meyers native and Marine Corps veteran Brian Peachey, whose desire was to give locals the opportunity to fish competitively, while using proceeds to support military service members through Freedom Alliance.
Doing so, Grouper Grapple competitors can honor those who sacrificed so that we Americans can enjoy our many freedoms … freedoms such as fishing.
Donations from the tournament teams and sponsors allow Freedom Alliance to host a crew of wounded service members for the weekend of the competition. The first year we participated in the Grouper Grapple, eight Marines accompanied us; this year, the number was 18!
August 11, we flew servicemen from North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin, while others drove in from other parts of the southeastern states. This is the only Freedom Alliance event in which we always include the original veterans to participate, adding another six to eight each year.
“We’re not only able to establish that friendship, but we can build on it,” said Scott, one of the original eight Marines, of his fellow servicemen and the bond they develop year after year. “They are our friends. They are our brothers.”
Brian, the tournament director, noted the significance of including combat vets in the Grouper Grapple. “These guys deal with issues you and I don’t have to deal with, so giving them an outlet is important.”
And fishing can be that necessary outlet. Brian knows this first-hand, having served himself.
“A lot of people come back from combat with PTSD, they introvert,” he said. “They have to reintegrate from full-speed combat to regular life, and that’s a huge adjustment.”
And besides a fun weekend of Leatherneck bonding, what these veterans receive from their participation in the Grouper Grapple is incredible support, from individual fishermen and boating crews, as well as the tournament’s corporate sponsors.
On Friday, seven local charter captains volunteered to take the servicemen on their boats for a half-day of backwater fishing on Estero Bay. Ryan Clase of Dynamic Fishing Charters was one of those captains who donated his time and his boat.
“I love giving these guys the opportunity to get out onto the water,” he said. “I feel that this is the least I can do after what these guys have done for our country. I’d give up a charter to take these guys fishing any day.”
The founders of Tunaskin Aquatic Apparel, Mitch Fusek and Bill Bronsord, later hosted a private party for the Freedom Alliance guests. Tunaskin supports Freedom Alliance in many and profuse ways, and, as always, they showed their appreciation to our 18 at the Grouper Grapple this year.
Each veteran was given a gift box containing Tunaskin accessories and apparel: a Grouper Grapple neck sleeve (called a “joker”); a sunglasses retainer cord; a custom long-sleeve performance top, printed with the veteran’s name and the Marine Corps flag; and a $50 certificate to spend in the shop. (Many of the men used the certificate to purchase gifts for their spouse or children.)
We met that evening at the Fish Tale Marina for live music and the obligatory captains’ meeting. Many of the competing teams invited a Marine on board, and some boats departed Friday night for waters 150 miles off shore.
Saturday, while the boats were out fishing for Grouper, the marina was filled with festivity. Local families gathered and enjoyed related activities and programs, like face painting and a display from the local sheriff’s office.
By late afternoon, the first team’s were coming back to port with their catches for the weigh-in.
Before announcing the official results of the contest, Captain Scott Hall, the voice of Fish Tale Radio and Grouper Grapple emcee, asked the servicemen to come on stage. The crowd broke out in applause as the men were presented a special plaque, with artwork by marine-life artist Dennis Friel.
In a moving show of generosity, several of the winning teams donated their cash prizes to Freedom Alliance, including $750 from team “Snake in the Grass,” $1,000 from the Fish Tale Marina team, and the $250 winnings from a junior angler.
There were many others who also donated, and the final total was in excess of $8,000.
“My combat experience and time in the military pales in comparison to [the smiles on the men’s faces],” said Steve, a Marine who has recently worked at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Knowing the trip you put on for them gave them a sense of freedom was part of my reward.”
One Marine, who suffers from severe anxiety and depression since his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, told us he’d been going through hard times.
“Being able to be a part of [this weekend] was a true blessing, and it honestly couldn’t have come at a better time for me,” he said. “It means more to me than you know.”
These testimonies confirm what we’ve known for a long time: that a war-weary Soldier of the Sea can find himself again, given a little fellowship, a little bit of thanks, and a lot of fishing.
Until next year’s Grouper Grapple Tournament…