Freedom Alliance’s Rogue River excursion of last year was a defining moment for all who participated. Something indefinable but none the less remarkable happened when we merged intergenerational service members, put them in boats, and handed them a fishing rod for four days along one of the most beautiful waterways in the country.
This year, the phenomenon repeated, as eleven new participants traveled to Grants Pass, Oregon, from hometowns across the nation, including sites such as San Antonio, Nashville, and San Diego. All thanks to Freedom Alliance supporter Mike Dawson and his father-in-law, Jerry Schuld.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” said retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Dan, who survived four explosions in Iraq as part of a team that dismantled improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Upon arriving in Oregon for fishing, Dan was surprisingly reunited with long-lost friend and comrade, Ryan, also an explosive disposal technician, who he hadn’t seen since 2006!
Another unexpected reunion occurred when we met for a welcome dinner at Mike Dawson’s ranch home.
Mike and father-in-law Jerry greeted the troops fondly with a warm meal and a “teaser” of what was to come on their four-day, 65-mile scenic fishing journey.
Before feasting on lasagna, Sergeant Major Steve recognized a young Marine from Fox Company, Second Battalion, First Marines.
During deployment in Fallujah, Iraq, Steve was seriously wounded in his eye socket, which sent him stateside for treatment. A few months later, while Steve was recuperating, Bret came to the hospital to undergo an impressive 29 surgeries. He barely survived an attack in Iraq, during which a suicide bomber drove into his vehicle convoy, killing 10 of the 15 troops on board.
Bret was in a bad way, but he fondly recalled his first sergeant checking on him every day, and the two hadn’t seen each other since Steve had left the hospital to deploy again to Iraq.
After dinner the first night, we settled into rooms at the Riverside Inn in downtown Grants Pass. The staff at the inn were eager to welcome their military guests, handing them personal notes of thanks and gifts from a local candy company.
The next morning, Mike and Jerry waved farewell from the banks of the Rogue River as the troops boarded six drift boats, which were captained by expert fishing guides from Briggs Rogue River Trips.
Steelhead trout started to bite upon setting off, and in the early afternoon, the captains stopped at a beach to serve a full-spread picnic lunch. With seventy-degree weather, sparkling water, and spectacular scenery and wildlife, you could almost see the combat stress melting away.
Army Reservist Shon was called to active duty as a combat medic. In May 2004, he was crushed under a Hummer when a mortar hit a mine next to his vehicle, his left arm and leg hurt very badly as a result. Not letting that get him down, Shon’s contagious laughter echoed off the canyon walls as the gang headed west along the Rogue.
When we stopped for the evening at Black Bar Lodge, retired Chief Warrant Officer Mike entertained the group with hunting stories. Mike only recently left a long career in the Marine Corps, having served in five deployments and earning two combat action ribbons and two Purple Hearts.
Enduring a traumatic brain injury from an explosion in Afghanistan, this Marine is also grieving the loss of his best friend, Chief Warrant Officer Gary, who was killed one year ago when a train struck a parade float carrying combat veterans. Mike was also in the parade, riding the float in front of Gary’s. This hero’s tragic absence was noticeable as we made our course down the river.
After a pork chop dinner at the lodge and a well-rested night in the Black Bar cabins, the gang headed back to the boats for the next day’s fishing of salmon and trout. The catch was dressed, seasoned, and grilled by the guides later that day for lunch.
“This is the best fish I’ve ever tasted!” exclaimed Mike. The rest of the troops agreed.
Air Force veteran Matt told us about how his father had once vowed to take him fishing in Alaska, but was unable to keep that promise. Since then, trout fishing has been on his bucket list.
“I’ve wanted to fish the Pacific Northwest, and here I am,” Matt said. “Freedom Alliance has made this possible because there’s no way I can do this on my fixed income, so this is a blessing for me.”
After watching a bald eagle swoop down to fish alongside our boats, we spotted a black bear in the brush. Another Matt, a staff sergeant who lost his right eye and sustained injury to his arm from a grenade explosion, is an amateur photographer. He managed to snap a first-rate photo of our riverbank companion.
We were treated to another stellar meal and accommodations at Marial Lodge. This was the night that the gang really warmed up to each other, sharing stories around the fire in the main living room. Even the other guests at the lodge were heartened by our heroes and thanked them for their service to our country.
Like Dan, Brian served in the Marine Corps dismantling IEDs. Six months into his third deployment, he endured an explosion. Brian lost his right arm below the elbow, three fingers on his left hand, and his right leg above the knee. With a prosthetic hand and leg and an abiding sense of humor, Brian held his own on the Rogue River.
He recommended for the trip his friend Rob, a retired Army sergeant. Rob stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan and lost his right leg, resulting in surgery and a lengthy hospital stay.
Brian, Rob, and the others drifted through Mule Creek Canyon the third morning on the river; this is an intimidating mile of class-three rapids. These sheer vertical cliffs were cut by even more treacherous rapids and punctuated by boulders. Half of the troops were dropped off on the shore to walk a trail and meet the boats once they made it safely through the white water.
That day we also got to know retired Army Master Sergeant Bobby, who was severely burned in Ramadi when a suicide bomber exploded a truck filled with propane. While Bobby filled us in on his current happenings, the landscape opened up to more a spacious prospect.
That was when Shon happened to reel in a sizable Coho Salmon, also known as the “Thousand Cast Fish” because they so rarely take the bait. It was a tremendous catch, which was enthusiastically celebrated.
The family at Lucas Lodge, our third night’s lodging, provided a fire pit for the anglers to enjoy while eating appetizers. Stress levels were at an all-time low and the banter was as plentiful as the fish.
Stomachs were satisfied the next morning after a bacon and egg breakfast, and the crew hit the boats for the last leg of the journey. Reaching Grants Pass that evening, we met Jerry and Mike again at the ranch for the farewell dinner.
The men were happy to share their adventures that night with the donors who made the trip possible. All departed Oregon full of camaraderie and contentment, knowing we shall not forget the bonds forged and the troubles left behind on the Rogue River.