Healing Our Heroes
The Reel American Heroes
by Bruce Callis Jr
Once every year, the Reel American Heroes Foundation puts on their annual fishing tournament for our Heroes, those men and women who gave so much for us and our freedoms. This year, 2019, was the 9th Annual Tournament, and it was an amazing turnout. Hope Springs Marina host the tournament and allows the use of it’s ramps and facilities.
The one thing that sets RAHF apart from all the other big Wounded Warrior organizations is that the foundation is a 100% volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation. Ron DeFreitas is the founder of the group and it is run by a board of volunteers. It was started to thank our wounded heroes for their service to our country and to provide them with much needed recreational therapy. They work with both military hospitals and military bases to find those men and women from all branches to find those Heroes in need. Chris Gardner and his wife Ashley, Ron’s daughter, stepped up during Ron’s health issues to ensure the smooth operation of the daily operations. Ashley is the Chief Executive Officer and Chris is the Chief Operations Officer. Ron continues to give, as he is the Financial Officer, as does a lot of the fund raising. Leslie Van Horn is the director along with Jay Nicely. They along with the board put this event on each year, but all their work is nothing without the men and women who volunteer to make the day run. From the boaters who volunteer to take a hero out on the water, to the volunteers who help set everything up, and take it down, to those who help launch the boats and give the heroes their fishing gear, everyone volunteers to make sure the heroes have an amazing day.
The morning started early, as the first volunteers started to arrive early to beat the boaters who would start arriving around 4 am. But, the boaters are ready to get out there, and some started to arrive as early as 3 am, but volunteers were ready and went to work. Volunteer boaters, from the local angler who fishes in local tournaments, to weekend warriors, to Elite Professional Anglers, everyone gives of themselves. From the man out at the entrance, greeting everyone and reminding them to dim their lights as they came in so they could see to launch the boats, to those helping by parking the trailers, to checking them in, everyone was ready. In the dark, boats launched and idled over to the piers, awaiting to find their heroes and get ready. Warriors arrived early, as they made their way to registration and given their fishing gear, gear they keep to help further their therapy. Rods and reels, tackle boxes with gear inside, a shirt made just for this day, and breakfast, the heroes are made welcome with open hearts and arms.
From the time they arrive to the opening ceremonies, the air is filled with happy smiles and talk. Pictures are being taken by heroes, boaters, and volunteers. It is an electric time, joy fills the air. If some are nervous, it can be easily washed away by everyone there. It doesn’t matter how much experience the hero has at fishing, the boaters, volunteers, and other heroes help those in need. Two big supporters of RAHF are John Crews and Shaw Grigsby, both professional anglers, John with BASS and Shaw with MLF. If their schedule permits, they are there to take a hero out. There are other professional anglers who support RAHF, but these two gentlemen are there more often and give so much. They don’t talk about what they do, they just do it. It speaks volumes to me.
At 7 am, opening ceremonies are started, with a welcome and presentation of the colors. The National Anthem was sung by Cameron Barrett, a surprise birthday song to her mom, then a prayer, a few announcements, and everyone was dismissed to head to their boats and head off to go fishing. This year, 93 very deserving heroes hit the water with 81 volunteer boaters.
The excitement of the morning dies onshore as the volunteers prepare to get everything set up for when they arrive back and the fun of weighing in begins. The cooks are busy checking to make sure the food is cooking properly, beans are stirred so they don’t burn and stick, corn is shucked, and tables are moved and set up. Coolers of water and other drinks (non alcoholic) are refilled and ice put on them. Prizes are moved under the tent where the opening ceremonies occurred and set up so when the closing ceremonies take place, the winners can pick the prize they want. The tent and scales are set up along with the holding tanks with oxygenation are readied for the weigh in. And once everything is done, a deep breath is taken and a little rest is in order.
And in what may have seemed like a blink of an eye, 2 o’clock arrived and the heroes arrived back at the ramp. They found their way up to the tent and both boater and hero awaited their turn to lift their prize catches high. Family and friends took pictures to mark the day and volunteers released the fish back into the creek. Care was taken to ensure that the fish was revived and swam away. Boaters loaded up their boats and everyone was reminded to check in even if they did not catch anything. The heroes who came in empty handed, did so with a smile on their face. That speaks volumes! They all said that it was an amazing day and that they had fun. But the smile in their eyes spoke even louder!
Once the fish were weighed, they could make their way up the hill to the tents set up for lunch. Those who had gotten their meal moved to the tables, but the laughter and talk never died. More pictures were taken by all. While some ate, others continued to work. Numbers had to be compiled, weights checked, and winners determined. Final tickets were sold for the items that were to be raffled off to help raise funds for next year. You could hear the joy in the air. You could feel the laughter. It was all talk about how tough the fishing had been, what had worked, how much fun they had, and how much the day had meant to them. And then Chris Gardner asked everyone to make their way over to the other tent so they could wind everything up. Sounds easy, but when people are having fun, no one likes to stop.
Everyone gathered and awaited the big news. While some already knew they did not win, they stayed, to cheer on their fellow heroes. They stayed to give support. And then Chris welcomed everyone back. Lew’s and Strike King gave out 8 prizes first. Then it was time for the big winner. Boat number 65 with Hero Catherine May-Benjamin and boater Ben Jacobi had a total of 12.04 pounds to take the win. Catherine had landed 3 beautiful bass, including her very first to help seal the victory and they had the first choice of prizes. While it seems easy, sometimes it is so difficult to decide. Which do you want, what do you need, it fills the excitement level of everyone. Catherine took a 65 inch television from the hero side and Ben chose the package he wanted. Next up, for 2nd place, were boat 53 with hero Jeremy Davis and boater Jessica Davis with 10.83 pounds. Third place went to Billy Stickney and Michael Nichols. Fourth place was Raul Renton and Mel Rodgers. Fifth place went to Paul Laird and Jim Jarvis. This year, the heroes who finished in 6th through 9th were also awarded prizes. And then the fun began as those with raffle tickets waited to see who would win the raffle items. Fun, because some bought a bunch of tickets and had to check all the numbers when the winner was chosen. And the crowd didn’t dwindle. And then it was over, the end of the tournament, and only clean-up was left.
1st Boat 65: Ben Jacobi (boater) Catherine May-Benjamin (hero) 12.04
2nd Boat 53 Jessica Davis (boater) Jeremy Davis (hero) 10.83
3rd Boat 46 Micheal Nichols (boater) Billy Stickney (hero) 10.57
4th Boat 57 Mel Rodgers (boater) Raul Renton (hero) 10.01
5th Boat 02 Jim Jarvis (boater) Paul Laird (hero) 9.42
6th Boat 26 Shaw Grigsby (boater) Troy Biggham (hero) Ben Eyer (hero) 9.24
7th Boat 40 Christopher Reed (boater) Stephen Kokai (hero) 8.95
8th Boat 42 Jarvis Raynor (boater) Terry Dunlap (hero) 8.62
9th Boat 17 Rickey Mummert (boater) Maurice Graham (hero) 8.3
For anyone who has never attended one of the Reel American Heroes Foundation tournaments, you are missing out on so much. I personally have been volunteering since 2014. My first year, I knew why I was there, but had no clue how much the day would effect me and change my life for the better. What I thought I was giving to the heroes was far surpassed by what they gave to me. My uncle had been a life long Marine, something that I knew was an honor and a choice he made. Talking with him still did not clue me in to what he had given. But talking to the heroes, not as soldier to civilian, but citizen to citizen, opened my eyes to what they had given. Some left body parts behind, some left with parts of them forever changed by the horrors they witnessed, but each and every one of them did not complain, but rather took it in stride as duty to country. I left my first event with pride in those I had met there. And while the faces may change each year, that pride doesn’t. Each year I am moved by the love of country they have. While not all of us served, some by choice, some for medical reason, we are all citizens of the greatest country, the United States of America. Our pride in this country and those who served, those who gave all and those who left a piece of themselves behind should be unwavering. We should do everything we can to help make their lives better. By supporting organizations like Reel American Heroes Foundation, we can make a difference in their lives. By volunteering, even in ours. What will you do?