This is the story of an Alaskan saltwater fishing trip, one event of many in the Freedom Alliance Outdoor Adventures series. But more to the heart of the occasion, this is the story of six men who share something in common—and it’s not their injuries or combat experiences.
Jason, Richard, Rory, Shawn, Ryan, and Carlos have encountered numerous setbacks because of their sacrifices in defense of our country. But in spite of all that, each man has persevered and overcome these difficulties.
Our time on the Alaskan seas proved their mettle and showed us that sometimes a challenge and a bit of teamwork can be the best means to recovery.
Vonnie’s is a guide service and bed and breakfast located in Sitka, Alaska, which provided this awe-inspiring, unforgettable experience for our six war heroes. Outfitting the crew in first-rate weatherproof rain gear, the Vonnie’s captains and deck hands cared for and supported our service members throughout every leg of the voyage.
For three days, through wind and rain and choppy waters, from before sunrise to late afternoon, the men endured. While on course to the cove where they would cast their lines, a Freedom Alliance team member struggled to hold onto a soldier’s wheelchair, which lurched and bounced around a slippery deck.
Jason was one Army soldier on our crew who came with his wife, Suzanne. During his military career, he deployed five times to theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was in charge of other soldiers during some very harrowing missions; but it wasn’t until he returned home that things took a turn for the worse.
While on a ski trip with a group of veterans, he was in an accident that severed his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. With a dedicated wife by his side and a steadfast spirit, Jason has not let his immobility keep him from living his life—even when life brings him out to the Gulf of Alaska.
To help Jason get to the boat, Alaska Tours provided handicap transportation to and from the dock every time. He and Suzanne were able to catch their share of salmon, which will supply some wonderful seafood dinners for the couple.
Richard served under Jason when he deployed to Afghanistan with the 4th Infantry Brigade out of Fort Carson. His arm took a bullet there, causing severe injuries, but, like Jason, it was after coming stateside that the worst happened.
Riding in a parade to honor veterans, Richard saved his wife’s life when a train collided with their float. The accident left him paralyzed, although, after many surgeries and rehabilitation, he can now walk again with the aid of a cane.
Standing on the unsteady boat proved to be impossible, and he had to reel backward with his good hand, using his forearm to hold onto the rod. By the end of it, Richard had caught 100 pounds of fish!
Also from the 4th Infantry Division, 20-year Army veteran Shawn was deployed with Richard to Iraq, as well as Afghanistan. Having endured many explosions, Shawn suffers from brain, neck, and back injuries, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This diligent soldier has found some peace in helping out other veterans of war, and he even volunteers with Freedom Alliance by setting up events using his many connections. The serving is therapeutic for Shawn, and he was very thorough in helping organize this event, securing every detail and making sure all the guests’ needs were met.
The pain of his injuries was made worse by the rough water, but Shawn and the others pushed through their discomfort, finding empowerment and a sense of accomplishment.
Rory was yet another shining testimony of determination. While in the war, Rory lost his right eye, critically damaged the left, and lost much of his hearing when he encountered a roadside bomb.
His poor eyesight made fishing a challenge, especially knowing when to reel in. Eventually, however, he got the feel for it and could intuit when he had a bite on the line. Having to take out his hearing aids because of the wind and boat noises, Rory would take frequent breaks from the fishing to chat with the others, using his lip-reading abilities in order to carry a conversation. He really seemed to connect with his fellow service members and was always there to help bring in a catch.
Ryan served the Army for 15 years before being medically retired after time in Iraq, from which he came away with a traumatic brain injury, wounds to his back and body, and PTSD. He had previously been deployed to Somolia, Haiti, and Bosnia, and was reticent about his combat experience.
Even so, Ryan was a keen fisherman, a witty storyteller, and the proud owner of a 100-pound halibut, which he caught giving credit to his fellow boat mates.
Carlos is a veteran of traumatizing combat, having deployed several times. He suffers from agonizing headaches as a result, as well as having to deal with psychological stress. With support from his wife, an encouraging father, a new son, and the companionship of his service dog, Carlos is learning to find the pleasure in life again.
The hardest part of the trip for Carlos was leaving Phiona, his devoted dog, behind at the lodgings. Miraculously, he didn’t experience any headaches on the trip, and he came alive with enthusiasm over all of Alaska’s natural wonders. Carlos and his contagious smile made sure no one missed the seals, whales, caves, and even the brown bear we passed by at the water’s edge.
This expedition was an extraordinary feat of physical and mental strength, but the rewards were enormous.
From the moment we landed in Sitka—when the Coast Guard, the American Legion, and the Air Patrol showed up as the welcoming committee—to the very end when Alaska Airlines shipped our fish home free of charge, the gratitude and support for troops was boundless.
And what more can we say about our hosts? Vonnie’s Guide Service and Bed and Breakfast gave so much more than just fishing, meals, and accommodations: to show our six heroes their support and patriotism, they provided the journey of a lifetime.