I met the guys at their temporary home in Summerland Key. With an ocean view, hammock, kayaks, and snorkeling available in the back yard they were pumped. This trip was special for a number of reasons.
One reason, Tabitha was going to be there. She is the woman I coordinate veteran’s trips with from the Recreational Department of the VA hospital in Miami. We have worked together for over two years, but never met in person. The bonding, personal growth and the opportunity to see the vets in a totally different setting is remarkable during our trips with the Foundation. I encouraged Tabitha to come down and witness it for herself. She has an incredible relationship with the vets in the rec program. They trust her. I also knew she would be a better ambassador for the Foundation if she came down herself.
Second reason…Edwin who was on our second veteran’s trip was coming back. He and one of the guys on this trip had gotten pretty close. Tabitha thought it would be a good idea if Edwin came along so the new vet could feel more comfortable. After Edwin’s trip he started working at a non -profit Up2Us. He told me he wanted to give back to our veterans like we did. He teaches returning vets to be Coach-Mentors in underprivileged communities while also getting help with their own job training and professional skills. This program has been very successful and Edwin took on another challenge. He is Platoon Leader of the 1st Miami Service Platoon. This group involves current and former military personnel on different missions to create change in the community. This year the focus is environmental conservation. In addition to the work done it enables the group to show the community that they are still here to serve!
Third reason, every fishing trip is special!
Ernesto (AKA “KOI” AKA “Maholo”) was the first to arrive. He is a married Navy veteran who served one tour on an aircraft carrier as a “Yellow Shirt”. Ernesto was part of the team of officers in charge of aircraft handling, catapult and arresting gear operation and directing aircraft.
He backs up his truck in the driveway making sure he has a view of his truck at all times, and can leave quickly if needed. He later told me when he got there he did a walk through of the house, and secured the perimeter. This is something an average tourist would be unlikely to do, but it makes total sense from a vet. Many have told me once you have been in combat , it’s just part of daily life.
Alvaro arrived next. He is a veteran of the Marines with one tour in Iraq. He is originally from South America but wanted to serve this country in spite of the PTSD he had even before enlisting. Not surprisingly his time in Iraq intensified this condition. He is the proud father of a daughter.
Jose joined the group. He is a Marine veteran and served a total of 5 tours, 3 in Iraq and 2 in Afghanistan. He was seriously injured while in the service. (details of that are in his thank you note).
Edwin arrived with Tabitha. I could see why these guys love her. She is instantly welcoming, and can give a great hug. I truly believe you can tell a lot about someone by their hug. I have seen Edwin a few times since his first trip, and talk to him often. Big hug from him. I could tell some of the other guys were a little tense (unfamiliar place, new group of people) so we shook hands.
Everyone picked out their room, and we sat down and went over the itinerary. I try to keep it as flexible as possible. You never know what mother nature has in store. Fishing offshore with Captain Jesse Smith, Captain Neil Gryder, and my husband Captain David Moloney. The wind was howling the first two days, so we moved the offshore days back. Edwin and Tabitha had to go back early for work so we tried to improvise. We decided to do some night time shark fishing from the dock. We hooked up quite a few times trying to get Edwin and Tabitha on something before they left. They hooked up a few times, but Ernesto’s persistence and dedication to staying on the dock ,and not at the bon fire payed off. He was able to catch a shark.
Finally the weather cleared up. Tabitha had to go back to work, as did Edwin. Both were bummed they weren’t able to go fishing, but glad they got to spend time in the Keys with everyone.
Alvaro has trouble sleeping and wanted to take advantage of the home having a hammock that was right next to the water. Fellow Army veteran Jesse Smith was the captain for the first day offshore. He was mainly up on the tower looking for fish. Dave and Neil were busy rigging, grabbing fish and offering instructions. We went to a wreck off of Key West and Ernesto got the first fish, a bonito. Jose hooks an amberjack, and boy did he start to understand why they call them “reef donkeys.” He was glad to release it. We hooked a couple schoolies (mahi) and let them go. We moved to do some deep dropping.
Regulations on tile fish and snowy grouper are a total of 3 per boat of any combo. As soon as we caught our limit, 2 tiles and 1 snowy (our boys love to eat) we moved on. We did a little trolling and hooked up a decent dinner size mahi. The guys vacuum sealed a lot of the fish, to bring it home for their friends and family. Some quick trolling yielded a cuda we released. That wrapped up our day and we headed in jamming out to Journey. Always nice to cook your catch at the yacht club for our dinner. Doesn’t get any better than that.
The next day it was pretty much the same game plan. This time Alvaro joined us. He was the first one on for that day, and quickly caught the biggest mahi. After that several more were caught. We kept what we were going to eat and released the rest. Happy, we headed in.
For a change of pace the following day Dave brought them fishing at Bahia Honda. Jose and Ernesto went, Alvaro opted to stay behind. Jose hooked up a massive tarpon. Tarpon fishing has its own characteristics. Because tarpon have such a hard mouth even a well set hook often doesn’t penetrate. That’s why it is so common for the fish to come off the hook after a couple of jumps. Most anglers don’t mind since that’s the best part of the fight anyway. This tarpon put on quite a show. The tarpon was almost to the boat. Dave grabbed the leader and the tarpon gave one more head shake before breaking the line….technically a caught fish. Ernesto took over and landed a few permit and hooked another tarpon which broke off. Both guys were pretty worn out. They had never fished for tarpon or permit before. We went home and took a little siesta before dinner.
Another yummy dinner at the Square Grouper. We decided to eat upstairs to be able enjoy good food and some friendly competition with shuffleboard. Many of our guys are adjusting to the civilian lifestyle. Things like loud noises, not being able to see all points of entry, locked doors, not checking the perimeter of a building can be emotional triggers.
An additional challenge is personal space, and meeting new people. It takes many vets a little bit to open up to new people. David and I are very lucky that most of our guys (and families with the kids) open up really well. At one point in the night a good friend , Shelby, came up behind me and pretended to put me in a headlock and said “what’s up Krissy?” I instantly looked over to our guys and put my thumb up to say “everything is ok.”
There was also a group of women who were enjoying themselves, and laughing very loudly. I could see the guys start to withdrawl a little bit. Most of their daily lives revolve around doctor appointments at the VA. The people they interact with are veterans. Like I said ,opening up to people, and adjusting to everyday life is difficult in a way that I am grateful I will never really understand. I have never experienced combat and the physical and emotional trauma that goes with it. They are conditioned and trained to act and react a certain way. Their survival depended on it. Now it can get in the way. So when my friend put me in a playful headlock, and the ladies were laughing very loudly I knew they might react. It makes sense.
I walked over to our guys and asked them if they were ok? One of our guys said he didn’t like how that guy just came out of no where and did that to me. We sat and talked for a few minutes while I explained that this is how things are down here. Everyone knows everyone. We are like a family. “You would do the same thing to one of the girls you served with right?” “Yeah, maybe. I guess that makes sense if everyone is like family. I thought it was just a random guy. Plus he’s super loud.” I asked our guide friend Shelby to come over. I introduced them to each other and told our vets that Shelby did our first veteran’s trip. The guys hit it off, and chatted about fishing. Shelby spoke about his appreciation, respect, and how much he enjoyed the trip he did.
We went back to the house for some more shark fishing off the dock. Some very good conversations that night. Dave and I are blessed to have these times.
The next day was very relaxed. We all needed it. The tarpon and permit did a number on Jose’s and Ernesto’s backs. They swam around in the pool, and headed out the next day.
I would like to share edited excerpts from the Vets and their Story:
I would like to take this time to write since I can express myself better this way…you guys are amazing. I truly mean that from the depths of my heart. As a Vet that is having issues with everyday life in trying to find myself, and dealing with PTSD, Anxiety, Pain, Always being alert to every sound, People, etc. It was refreshing to be in a place that I was able to let my guard down and just relax. I can’t even remember the last time I could just kick back and not worry about anything at all and just enjoy myself. Your organization does amazing things to impact every person. There are no words that could explain what you guys have done for me. I will forever hold you guys near and dear in my heart and I’m so proud to have you guys in my life and call you friends. Thank you again and keep up the great work…..
Love you guys…Ernesto E. AKA Mahalo.
Jose A. ,USMC ret, OIF/OEF Veteran.
I made a promise to my grandfather when I was a child that one day I would join the service. After joining I worked in the aviation field. I was skeptical at first before going on this trip, since I am not as sociable as I once was and due to two back surgeries not as agile as well. While on the trip for the first time in my military career I was actually able to let my guard down and relax. I am always tensed up and on alert. I’ve made some great friends that helped me and continue helping me.
I was injured after a fall from an aircraft. I had 3 arm surgeries and now have severe nerve damage. A stimulator was implanted in my back in a effort to help. During one surgery I was clinically dead, revived but ended up in a coma. I am now struggling to get my life back together.
A sense of knowing that even though I may be physically disabled, that will not keep me down from doing what I want to do in life. I also have a sense of peace, also knowing that I am not alone out here.
At the time I was offered the first trip, I was depressed, anxious, angry, and all these other adjectives that can’t really describe how I was just emotionally and spiritually unstable and down. I don’t know if you remember, but at the end of the second to last day of our excursion I told you that I wanted to get into something that would enable me to help Veterans. This was because the environment and everything you so graciously afforded me the opportunity to enjoy made me realize that I wanted to figure out a way in which I could help out others in my situation.
That was a bit over a year ago. I proceeded to do just that. I became a Program Manager for Up2Us and the Mission Continues Platoon Leader for the 1st Miami Service Platoon.
None of this could have been possible without your organization’s inspiration…. I want you all to know that you are making a profound difference. You are all agents of change and I truly appreciate what you selflessly do for others, including myself.
I hope that as you read this letter I can give you a small glimpse of the change that was made in my life by just a few days involved with you. I want you to know that not only am I grateful, but also know that although they don’t know it, those who I am now touching are also grateful. You helped empower me to bring positive change to those around me.
Krissy, I want you to know that it was a life changing experience and even though it was hard to assimilate at the beginning, I found a way to relax and enjoy myself to the fullest because of all of you. I came back refreshed and motivated, and ready to become an example of the spirit of the “Spanish Fly”.