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Iraqi Freedom Soldiers Enjoy Potomac Fishing Tournament

By Staff Sgt. Cheryl Hackley, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., July 20, 2004 – Nearly 30 active duty soldiers and Army National Guardsmen on medical hold at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., were released from the hospital for a day recently to go fishing.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Spc. James shows off the 3.95-pound largemouth bass he caught while fishing in the first Operation Iraqi Freedom Soldiers Fishing Tournament on the Potomac River Diffenderfer is recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington from injuries he received during duty in Iraq in February.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The soldiers participated in the first Iraqi Freedom Soldiers Fishing Tournament at the Columbia Island Marina just off the Potomac River. The marina sits right across the road from the Pentagon.

"We wanted to do something that got the soldiers out of the hospital," said Lee Branham, president of the NOVA Bass Anglers fishing club and organizer of the event. "We decided to take them fishing."

The soldiers are recovering from injuries suffered while serving in Iraq before heading home with medical discharges.

NOVA has worked since January to organize the event, Branham said. Walter Reed provided a bus to take the soldiers to and from the marina. A marina representative waived the site fee for the event, and Washington officials allowed the soldiers to fish without a license. T-shirts, hats and gift cards were donated and given out to the participants. The winners' plaques and "Hooah" T-shirts given to participants were made by a volunteer and donated as well.

Branham handed out flyers at regional meetings to get anglers interested in the event. Morale, Welfare and Recreation advertised the tournament to soldiers at the hospital.

"I found out about the event through a friend who works in MWR. It sounded like a good opportunity to get out of the hospital," said Spc. James Diffenderfer, 131st Transportation Company, Pennsylvania National Guard. Diffenderfer injured two discs in his neck that pushed into his spinal cord while working as a truck driver in Iraq and arrived at Walter Reed in February.

The tournament consisted of about six hours of fishing out on the Potomac River within view of Washington's monuments, with a free lunch provided. Each soldier could bring in up to five of their biggest fish for a weigh-in. Each competed against one another for first-, second- and third-place awards for heaviest total weight of the fish as well as an award for the biggest fish. After weighing, the fish were released back into the river.

Two soldiers were assigned to each of 16 volunteers who provided boats, gas and fishing gear for the event. Some fishermen were also military members. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Gary Hicks, National Guard Bureau, spent the day fishing with Diffenderfer.

"It was truly an honor to spend the day with these young men and women," he said. "They have given so much in the name of freedom, with no sign of regret. They are a true example of service before self."

Experience wasn't required for the event, as Diffenderfer demonstrated. He had been fishing only once before the event, but his biggest largemouth bass weighed in at a shade less than 4 pounds.

"That's a slightly above-average fish size for the Potomac," said Hicks, who has been tournament fishing for about four years. "If this had been a bass-only tournament, he would have cleaned house."

Branham said that win or lose, no one left the tournament disappointed. "By the end of the day, everyone had caught something," he said.

The winners received plaques and bragging rights. The biggest fish caught was a catfish weighing more than 15 pounds, reeled in by an active duty soldier.

"The tournament was very successful," said Branham, "for both the fishermen and the soldiers." More tournaments are planned for the future, and Diffenderfer said he definitely would attend.

"We will continue taking the soldiers fishing through the length of the war on terror," said Branham. For the soldiers, the event gave them a day to get away from the hospital, forget about their injuries and have a good time with people who cared and were excited to volunteer their time and skill.

"I think that the event was a tremendous way for us all to get out and just be human again, said Diffenderfer. "Relaxing, joking and just being around guys and gals who are good-hearted people was just the ticket we needed."

(Air Force Staff Sgt. Cheryl Hackley is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)

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Related Sites:
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
National Guard Bureau

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