Fifty bass tournament anglers and fifty Wounded Patriots descended on Lake Erling in southern Arkansas for the 2021 Wounded Patriots Bass Tournament, hosted by the AGRED Foundation. In 2020, the AGRED Foundation had to cancel due to Covid restraints. Many reading this probably just shrugged or nodded in recognition of all the events canceled in 2020, but for some of these Wounded Patriots, it’s the only time they get out of their living quarters or facilities. For the majority, it’s the only time they get to go fishing.
I was extremely fortunate to participate in this event as an angler guiding one of the Wounded Patriots for the day. Tom, my Wounded Patriot, belongs to the 75th Rangers–once a Ranger, always a Ranger. Always in harm’s way, Tom, a three-time Purple Heart recipient, was patched up and allowed to go back the first two times. However, the third time he was sent home, where he spent 30 months in surgeries and recoveries. Today Tom is a little slow, but he’s highly determined. For starters, just three weeks before this event, Tom had his second heart valve replacement. Most of us would still be recovering, but Tom said, “I want to feel the sun on my face from the LAKE!”
Tom loses his breath quickly right now between the valve replacements and a lung injury in the war. Walking very far or with any incline is difficult. However, when presented with a 50-yard uphill walk carrying a weigh bag or waiting for a golf cart, Tom said, “I’ve never taken the easy route, not starting now.” I did have to help Tom get in/out of the boat and up/down the boat’s decks. His step is short, and his knees don’t work so well. Tom is very determined and does very well with physical limitations I could not imagine having.
Tom said I could mention his injuries. Tom is missing two toes, one on each foot. In a rocket attack, Tom’s right leg broke and shattered the same knee. His left femur broke. Projectiles from the exploding rocket destroyed 70 percent of his left lung. I think this lung injury is what slows him down the most. Tom has upper limb issues, but most notable were the missing index finger on his right hand and pinky finger on his left hand, neither of which interfered with his perfect manipulation of a spinning reel. The injury curtailing Tom’s warfighting was to the left side of his skull. The rocket blew off Tom’s face from his nose to his ear and chin to just above his eyebrow. His surgeons performed miracles reconstructing the bone and skin grafts. It’s incredible how well they put Tom back together, considering these surgeries took place with 1970’s technology. Even after all Tom had been through to this point, he wanted to go back. Unfortunately, the Army wouldn’t let him because he now has a glass eye, and they have a rule against missing digits.
Okay, that’s Tom, my partner for the day. Here is what the AGRED Organization put together for the Wounded Patriots.
Friday night, we all gathered under giant tents because the weather had turned vicious with thunderstorms rolling through. About 1730 hrs, the clouds changed from black to a dark gray, and the rain stopped for a couple of hours. With the rain cleared out, the local National Guard perform the posting of the colors. Next was a flag retirement ceremony for two giant flags, the size seen flown over a base. These flags were tattered and needed retired. While an Emcee guided the retirement process, he also provided the history of the flag, what the stars mean, what the stripes mean; then a few pieces of unique information about the flag like why the flag faces the way it does on a military uniform (opposite of how it’s flown, the stars always face forward). Wound Patriots and anglers disassembled the flag by cutting the stripes out. Then all red stripes were placed on a large fire, followed by the white stripes, and finally the stars and the playing of taps—a very impressive and humbling ceremony.
Partner pairing was fun. As Wounded Patriots signed in, they received the name of their assigned angler. Since most of the anglers knew each other, we’d shout through the tent and make sure everyone got introduced—lots of poking and ribbing about who was going to put their Patriot on the winning fish.
Then it was time to eat dinner. Some of the best BBQ I’ve had, the only bad thing, it was “all you can eat”. I stuffed myself so bad I had trouble sleeping. We had smoked ham steak, onion sausage, regular sausage, gumbo, red beans and rice, beans and bacon, corn on the cob, and bread—just a ridiculous amount of food.
After eating and setting up plans to meet in the morning, it was time to park the boat in the provided security area at the ramp. Then it was off to get some sleep at the hotel, which the AGRED Foundation provided for each angler and Wounded Patriot.
The following day, I met Tom at 0600 under the tents to enjoy homemade sausage and biscuits. After the dinner I had the night before, I didn’t feel like I could eat breakfast so early but took a couple for the boat. Tom told me he was so excited to get on the water he didn’t sleep at all. Now I was happy to hear about his excitement, like a young kid the night before his first trip, but it also put the pressure on me to make sure he has a great time.
For obvious reasons, the fishing time was good safelight until noon. Most of the Patriots didn’t have the stamina to fish all day. I noticed Tom was getting uncomfortable about 1000 hrs. I asked him if I could get him something or help. “Mike, I am on blood thinners and water retention preventing medication, so I have to pee often.” As all fishermen do, I told him to go for it. He was afraid he would pee on the fiberglass. I chuckled and told him, “I love my boat, but it’s been pee’d on, spit on, crapped on by birds, and when I’m lucky, rained on to wash it all off.” I helped him stand up and get to the edge so he could handle business. Shortly after this, Tom tells me, “I told my wife I need a roll of toilet paper strapped to my butt.” Of course, my mind is thinking, holy crap, I need to get him to the bank. Tom continued, “my nose runs like a broken facet with all these medicines they make me take.” Whew, I can handle this. “Tom, I just so happen to have a small roll of toilet paper for your pocket.” Tom and I spent the morning telling stories about fishing, loved ones, and a few about the war. I can’t begin to describe what an amazing man Tom is. Tom loves his country, loves his wife, and loves to fish!
With a three-fish limit to work with, Tom and I started culling about an hour into the tournament. Having already caught many fish, we called it quits about 1130 and headed for the weigh-in. I needed to make sure I got a specific spot on the bank to help Tom out of the boat. His stepping distance is short, and I had to make sure I had an area where the boat’s nose was level with the bank. Mike Echols, tournament director for the B.O.S.S. tournament trail, handled the weigh-in. He brought his weigh-in trailer and equipment and put on a very professional show for the Wounded Patriots. It took ten pounds to win the three-fish tournament; however, Tom’s eight pounds was a strong finish and got him a $400 prize.
While we waited for everyone to weigh in and the organizers to record the places and write the checks, the AGRED Foundation fed us lunch. Catfish, boiled crawfish, boiled shrimp, and all the fix’ns. One thing I can say for sure, the AGRED organization doesn’t know what it means to be hungry, and they eat good!
Time to see who won and where everyone fell. As I mentioned, first place was just over ten pounds, and most Wounded Patriots caught fish. The AGRED Foundation made sure every angler who weighed a fish got a paycheck. Now, this was entirely free for the Wounded Patriot and the angler. The AGRED Foundation fed everyone dinner, breakfast, and lunch, a room to stay in, security for our equipment, and the Wounded Patriots got paid for playing. I can’t say enough great things about the AGRED Foundation. The event itself is a fantastic tribute to our Wounded Patriots; however, the AGRED Foundation went over the top at every opportunity.
For more information and to donate to next years Wounded Patriots tournament, contact the AGRED Foundation – American Gamebird Research Education and Development, www.agredfoundation.com
Get the Net, it’s a Hawg