Listen to this while reading this article. Tell me it doesn’t make your hair stand on end.
When I was seventeen, I made a life-altering decision. I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was struggling through high school and didn’t really care for academia, despite being a bright young man with all the promise in the world. I could tell you all about internal piston geometry and who won the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Yet what school had for me was not interesting and bland. The day the local Marine Corps recruiter visited in his dress blue deltas, I knew what I wanted to do after graduation. At the time Iraq was ramping up and I had just missed the invasion, a regret I carry with me to this day. June 17th, 2003 I stepped onto those infamous yellow footprints at Parris Island and could never go back to what was me before.
Bootcamp was exciting and always had my attention. I loved how much more disciplined and organized these Marine Drill Instructors were than the civilians I had grown up with. They were about themselves, exuding a confident aura that bordered on arrogance. But at any notice, they could put their man-drama aside and work together as a well oiled machine. At the time, they were men that I looked up to. They were real role models. The things they had us accomplish were real accomplishments, not some warm-and-fuzzy feel good achievement that in all reality, was a masked failure. These masked failures ran rampant in the civilian world.
I left boot camp September of that year. September of the following year I arrived in Iraq. We were there to participate in Operation Phantom Fury, though I did not know it yet. The operation is better known as The Battle of Fallujah. What I had endured up to this point in time was already life-changing. But what I was about to go through would be so permanent that I would carry it with me forever. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my comrades and our time spent in that odyssey. I’m not going to try to explain what it was like. I couldn’t because it’s not possible. I have tried and I can tell you that the best way you can understand is by knowing that you cannot understand. The experiences I had were just so intense and life-changing that they cannot be substituted with story-telling.
But these experiences…they empowered me. They did not disable me. Carrying a gun and walking the Earth as if it were my last day to do so was the best time of my life. Today, because of those experiences, I walk taller and more confidently. I am 26, but I am ageless. Other people that are 26 are still figuring out how to cheat their piss test at McDonald’s. I am not a victim of my experiences, I am the sole receiver of them. I don’t need anyone that wasn’t there to hold my hand and tell me it will all be better. I will take their hand in mine and say, “I already made it better.” But those events are my weight to carry, though I carry them well. I cannot pass them off to a counselor or a friend. And this is where it can get frustrating.
America isn’t at war. America never went to war. America’s military is at war and the average American has no skin in the game when it comes to the War on Terror. The day of 9/11 I was a junior in high school, I recall my peers shouting “Never Forget!” and I knew that they would forget. And they did. I knew because even then I could feel that an average American’s vindications are cheap. Over ten years later, I still deploy overseas. And I still remember, because the reality is very real. At the time of this writing, everybody is concerned about Dick Clark and Whitney Houston passing on, but nobody ever knew about Alessandro Carbonaro or Cory Palmer. The key difference is that they died for something other than themselves. Maybe it wasn’t for you or your freedoms, but it was definitely for their brothers to their left and to their right. I had yet more friends die and pass on unnoticed by America. We lived outside the American Microcosm.
I have grown used to it, but the weight is still there. To come home from a war and see people milling about mindlessly, not having a care in the world and making no contribution to the war effort, is proof to me they have no interest in winning over our enemies. They don’t care. They care more about pop stars and their own selfish world. Everybody says “thank you for your service” but I know it’s cheap rhetoric used so that they are not the ones being ostracized by society. I didn’t say “let’s fight America’s enemies”. I picked up a damn gun and went to war. Words are useless without action. And because Americans don’t care, we aren’t fighting these wars like we’re supposed to and it’s causing us warriors to unnecessarily die. I feel this strongly about it and I was not even injured, losing a leg or being deformed for life. Perhaps now, you, the reader, are starting to feel my frustration. Some days I wonder when America will get its act together. Some days I wonder if my generation of Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen will pass by unnoticed and be a mere entry in the annals of history…
No! This will not be the case.
There are still good people left. Certainly, there is at least one good man. The kind of man that leaves his mark. The breed of man that changes his world for the better. Enter Emeric Watson.
Emeric was referred to me by another fishing enthusiast on Louisiana Sportsman’s online forum. This was the summer of 2011. Emeric was putting together an event called the Wounded War Heroes Fishing Rodeo. I was offered the chance to be a part of this and I was excited! They needed boat captains to take Wounded War Heroes fishing and needed sponsors. I didn’t hesitate. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a part of this. I made a charitable donation and passed word to Emeric that I would like to be fishing for this event. He kindly obliged me. The date was set!
“There was even a boat designed specifically to accommodate those veterans that were in wheelchairs.”
The event was held the last weekend of August. Upon my arrival I saw that the Rodeo was much larger than life, and well put together. Hosted in Empire, the Delta Marina offered their services by closing to the public for that weekend and giving the WWHFR exclusive service. All of the operating costs of a charter were covered. They had food and drink to spare. It sounds crass, but it’s true: as I pulled in, I muttered in Marine to myself, “These people give a f*ck. This is some good sh*t.” It touched me. There was even a boat designed specifically to accommodate those veterans that were in wheelchairs. It rocked my face! I had plans to sleep inside my truck in the parking lot between fishing days, but because of all the generous donations made by awesome Americans, me and my crew were able to rack out in the accommodations there at the marina. This was all made possible by the hard work and dedication of Emeric, as well as others, and the charitable donations made by so many true Americans. It made me feel that being American is not simply denoted by citizenship, but how one behaves. Being American is defined by one’s character.
In my boat I had Danny, Sammy and Damian. They were all military veterans and avid fisherman. All of them had experienced injuries in the Middle East. Danny was always shouting “Team Vegas!”, Sammy was an amiable smartass and Damian was very easy to get along with. I had never fished out of Empire before and, despite the high winds, I had plans to fish Breton Sound for big speckled trout. We left early the next morning with high hopes.
We fished hard. We fished long. We were the last boat to make it in and we took a pounding from the three foot seas. But Sammy had caught the 1st place speckled trout! I never came to the rodeo with the intention of winning it. But now it very much became a reality. My whole crew was enthralled! We skipped the beer drinking festivities so that we could get a good night’s rest and give it our all tomorrow.
The whole crew rolled out of bed, not so bright but definitely early, to get bait and ice. In a timely manner, the boat was loaded up and ready to roll. Everyone said a quick prayer, I played my theme song (Ricky Skaggs – Dawg’s Breath) and we left for the Ostrica locks, being the first boat out.
We were following behind another boat piloted by two old-timers. They knew what they were doing and were vetted fishermen of the area. Everything was great until they made that one mistake that only happens in a lifetime: nailing a marsh island in the blackness of the early morning twilight. I haven’t seen a 22ft Skeeter fly before, but I did through the viewfinder of my PVS-14 night vision goggles. They almost completely jumped the island! I saw this at the last second and maneuvered to keep my boat from meeting a similar fate. Because my throttle doesn’t have a neutral interlock switch, I yanked back on the throttle too hard and put the faithful Yamaha into reverse at high speed, abruptly spinning the propeller and causing it to break. After I collected myself, I hopped out and waded over to the gentleman that ran aground, to make sure they were okay. They were, and said that they had help on the way. I was flabbergasted. How the hell did they survive that crash? Either way, they were good to go and we pushed off. I knew the prop was screwed (no pun intended) and started to limp back towards Delta Marina. I have got to give it to my guys! They kept fishing. Even Danny started crowing about Team Vegas again. Their spirits were down at first, but every one of them bounced back. They were hitting every shoreline they could and would not give up as we hobbled back towards safety. We were able to contact Emeric and inform him of the situation: that everybody was okay and we intended to return to base. But then Emeric showed how classy he really is. To the world, he demonstrated just how American he is and what dedication he has to the WWHFR event. He sent out the recovery boat, captained by his father, Mike Watson, to meet us and conduct a high-speed tow back to the marina. Then he had us crossload into Captain Watson’s boat and HEAD BACK OUT. I could not believe it. We were still going fishing!
We rolled out and fished. We fished hard. We fished it all, the top and bottom. Plastics and live bait. We were fanatics and not even the 3-4 foot seas were a match for our tenacity. Danny landed another big trout. Then Damian landed a big sheephead. Sure, it’s a “bay snapper”, but it is also points on the board! I thought for sure this would be the new 1st place speckled trout and a placing sheephead. These guys fished so hard that they were putting our weigh-in time at jeopardy. If we didn’t make it back in time, no fish we had from that day would count! They wanted to fish every structure we came across on our trip home. They wanted to win that damn rodeo and embraced every fishing spot as if it were their last. They were truly dedicated anglers. I wondered if they would ever stop, given the fire that was burning inside of them. Then I recognized that fire. It was the same motivation that caused men to do miraculous things. The same kind of tenacity that allows men to be shot multiple times and keep moving. That spirit burning alive in them was the same kind of spirit that caused a man to rush into a burning Humvee and pull out his comrades, so that they may live. It was the same kind of fire that could be extinguished when a man gave up his life for another. And it was right here in front of me, in some kind of weird human Petri dish. I could only say that I felt…honored.
We came back to the marina for weigh-in with a scarce five minutes to spare. I about died a thousand deaths at each lock we had to pass through. It seemed like it took forever for those giant gates to open and close and then open again. But we made it! The sheephead took 2nd place and the new trout took 3rd place. Our 1st place trout retained its position. We earned enough points to win the Wounded War Heroes Fishing Rodeo. I was ecstatic, and so were those War Heroes that I had the honor to fish with.
It is an event like the Wounded War Heroes Fishing Rodeo and the people that put it on, those like Emeric Watson, that really touch me and let me know “Hey Devin, we’re here. We have your back, and we have never forgotten.” Those people, they have a place in my heart and I have a place in theirs. And those Wounded War Heroes…it’s all about them. Some of them have really given up a lot and could never go back to the lives they had before. For others, they are finally getting the respect and admiration they deserve after decades of being left to the wayside.
The 3rd Annual Wounded War Heroes Fishing Rodeo will be held again this year on the last weekend of August. You can bet your ass that Captain Devin will be there to bring it with Team Vegas! I don’t care if Metallica wants to take a charter out that day, I will be fishing with some real rock stars! It’s my contribution to something higher than myself.
And isn’t that what I talked about before? Is it not that what delineates veterans from others? It’s the sacrifice. Taking them fishing is the least I can do to start paying it back. Remember, words are meaningless until you back them up with action. That action may take years to come around, as promises work out sometimes. But you can take action now. Any contribution to this event is greatly appreciated by myself, Emeric and all the Wounded War Heroes that will participate.
Take the time to do your part, and visit the Wounded War Heroes Fishing Rodeo website to contribute. The Wounded War Heroes Fishing Rodeo is 501(c)3 and when you chip in, you benefit yourself as well as others. It’s easy to donate.