Wounded Soldiers Cast Off Burdens as They Fish on the Bay

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009

The worst thing you can do when you're recovering from war is stay in your room, said Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Martinez, who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You get in your head, it becomes like a movie," said Martinez, 50, who was injured during his last tour and medically evacuated for traumatic brain injury, shrapnel in his knee and post-traumatic stress disorder. "I can't handle being alone."

On Saturday, a band of Calvert County volunteers gave Martinez and more than 50 other wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center a chance to get out of their rooms -- and their heads -- and into a boat on the Chesapeake Bay.

Under a just-past-dawn sky quilted in clouds, a school bus escorted by the Red Knights, a motorcycle club for firefighters, pulled into the parking lot of the Rod 'N' Reel restaurant and marina in Chesapeake Beach. The soldiers, some with braces and casts, stepped down from the bus to a cheering crowd of locals waving American flags.

"It's a perfect day for fishing," said Staff Sgt. Jessie White, 36, whose ankle was shattered by a roadside bomb in 2005 and still hasn't healed after two surgeries. He, Martinez and six other soldiers climbed aboard the Hooked Up II, a 40-foot motorboat, one of six hosting service members for the morning.

They motored into Eastern Bay in search of rockfish, dropped their lines and, in the words of skipper David Bailey, their bait was promptly "mauled up" by less-desirable bluefish. The boat rocked on the waves as Bailey worked the phones, asking fellow captains where the rockfish were hiding. The soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at their lines.

"Catch something, don't catch something, I don't care," said Martinez, a 23-year Army veteran whose job is defusing explosives. "It's relaxing."

Mary Mathis of Huntingtown has organized the summer fishing trip and barbecue for three years. Every year, she said, more people ask how they can help.

The owners of Rod 'N' Reel, whose grandfather took wounded World War II veterans fishing in 1946, paid for the chartered fishing trips and donated the use of a refrigerated catering truck. The local hardware store offered American flags. Girl Scouts wrapped silverware. One volunteer baked 22 cakes, another drove from McLean to help grill fish, while a third showed up Saturday with a purse full of mints to hand out to the soldiers.

"It's not much," Susan Quesenberry, of Owings, said of the mints, "but it's all I've got. It's just a way of saying thank you."

Mathis first organized the event in 2007 to repay a favor to Cindy McGrew, the founder of Operation Second Chance, an organization that assists wounded soldiers and their families by providing everything from airfare to mortgage payments. McGrew had helped Mathis locate and keep tabs on her nephew's wounded friends at Walter Reed.

"You listen to their stories and you go between feeling like you want to fix them and get mad," said Mathis, whose nephew served one tour in Iraq. "You can't fix them. But you can give them the opportunity to get out and about."

Out on the water, the sun eventually broke through the clouds, and the soldiers on Hooked Up II snagged 17 rockfish. "I'll sleep like a baby tonight," said White, who said anxiety usually makes sleeping difficult. "A day like today, you get wore out, and you don't have a choice."

Afterwards, the soldiers were taken to Mathis's farmhouse, where they were greeted by lunch and the day's second crowd of cheering well-wishers.

"It's cool to see people haven't forgotten what we've gone through," said White. "It makes me feel like what I've done was worth it, and all that happened to me wasn't for nothing."

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