If you were not at Centennial Park the weekend of Aug. 7-8, you missed a marvelous sight. Eighty of our finest military men and women waited patiently alongside a bank overlooking the Kenai River for their turn to fish. Volunteer guides expertly banked their individual boats, helped these wannabe fishermen climb in, and then spirited them away for a few hours of rest and relaxation and fishing.
The annual Wounded Heroes Event, hosted by the Kenai River Foundation (KRF), gathered wounded soldiers from throughout the state, transported them to Soldotna, made sure each had a room, and then took them fishing. All branches of the United States military were represented: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard. KRF volunteers watched as the buses arrived. As they exited their designated bus, some service members looked weary, some wary, some had huge grins on their faces as they saw the Kenai River rolling in front of them, and others had a combination of these looks.
It was an amazing and humbling sight — amazing to see their joy over what would soon be for many of them the first time to be on the river; humbling to see one soldier, barely able to walk, being supported on each side by two of his buddies, each acting as though this was a normal position for them.
David Goggia, event chairman, watched as the three of them packed their lunches and headed down to the water’s edge, tears welling in his eyes.
“Just being at these events over the past nine years has been a great experience and an honor,” he said. “Men and women, who have sacrificed so much, are excited to come to the Peninsula and just relax, enjoy two days of fishing on the Kenai River. I think the natural ambience of this awe-inspiring river helps heal, restore self-respect, and build confidence in these most deserving individuals.”
One of our Wounded Heroes agreed. Major Kasey Moore-Ritchie, a physiologist for the Air Force, said, “You can tell a lot of thought went into this event. Bringing us here to this river to fish is a great achievement. I have loved every minute of it. You get out there on the river and you simply forget everything. I caught six reds!”
She laughed and said her guide, JD, was great and summed her excitement up in eight words: It was a good day on the river. Moore-Ritchie says her husband, who joined her for the event, loved it as much as she did.
During the ceremonial awards dinner thrown by the KRF, wounded heroes and the event’s sponsors gathered together to enjoy prime rib, spicy grilled shrimp, corn, potatoes, and salads.
“It was a feast, simply amazing,” commented SFC Michael Jason Nash, Army Military Police. “Every meal at this event has just been simply amazing.”
Nash is assigned to the Ft. Wainwright Warrior Transition Unit for wounded, ill, or injured soldiers.
“Their mission is to get better and to go back to their Unit or home,” he said.
Nash joined the 2015 Wounded Heroes Event after spending the previous two years ensuring other soldiers got to experience fishing on the Kenai.
“This is such a great event that the service members would come back talking about it and they would brag for months about the river, the fish they caught, the food, the people, everything. They would wear their jackets all year long. I have never been on such a trip before and I would never have sought something like this for myself. I want to do it again next year. From the great service we have had to the meals to the prizes, this event has been flawless. It is so impressive.”
Another soldier echoed his sentiments.
“The Friday night dinner was definitely my favorite part of the event,” said Elijah Joseph Sowerby, Army E4 Specialist. “I won a .300 Winchester Magnum and I can tell you I am excited.”
After two event-packed days, these wounded heroes readied to leave for home. There was a different feel,though, than when they arrived. Trepidation had been replaced by tired and happy. As we watched them board, Goggia reminded us of the Vietnam era and those service members who came home to “less than a warm welcome.” He said “he never wants to see the men and women, who fight for their country so that we could enjoy the freedoms that America offers to all who reside on its shores, treated in such a manner, again; it was extremely appalling.”
As the buses pull away, members of the Alaska Defense Team snapped to attention, raised their hands, and saluted. They held the unified salute until the buses disappeared around the corner. Organizers and volunteers were stunned at the sight. The tears began to flow. One finally said, “That was amazing.” Another replied, “No, they are amazing. Each and every one of them is a hero.”
The Kenai River Foundation Board of Directors would like to thank the Wounded Heroes Event sponsors and volunteers. Without their contributions and financial support, this annual event would be impossible. The KRF will celebrate their tenth anniversary next year.
“We intend to make it very special,” Goggia said. “We invite those in the Peninsula community to join us in 2016 for a very special event for our wounded heroes.”