A nonprofit based in Alaska is helping veterans from across the country experience the natural beauty of the 49th state. The organization is called Helping American Veterans Experience Alaska, or HAVE-Alaska, and this year HAVE-Alaska is taking a group of eight veterans on a weeklong fishing trip around the Kenai peninsula from June 2 to June 7.
Joe Halstead is the president and founder of HAVE-Alaska, and he started the group about two years ago out of a desire to give back to the veterans who impacted his life, including his father. Halstead always had a passion for helping out veterans and has experience working with the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Wishes for Warriors and Operation Renewed Hope Foundation. Halstead said he wanted to create a healing environment for veterans, especially those who had suffered serious injuries or were dealing with trauma as a result of their service.
“When you see them sit around the fire at the end of the night and bond over the trip and share their stories, that’s what I see as part of the healing nature of what we do,” Halstead said.
The veterans started the trip with a day of halibut fishing in Homer. Seventy-nine-year old Gert Bindrich, a retired Army sergeant first class who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, had the first catch of the day. Bindrich, who fled to America from East Germany when he was 17 and served three years in Vietnam, described the trip as the experience of a lifetime.
“I can finally take this off my bucket list,” Bindrich said, referring specifically to fishing on the Kenai Peninsula.
Bindrich and his son Scott are both part of the trip this year, and the two served together during Operation Desert Storm. Scott said that the fishing and hiking on the peninsula is something that just can’t be duplicated anywhere else.
“We went hiking to Russian River Falls and got to see salmon jumping out of the water as they went upstream,” Scott said. “It was like something you’d see on the Discovery Channel, except it was right in front of you.”
After halibut fishing in Homer they headed inland for some catch-and-release king salmon fishing in Kenai. Wednesday consisted of a hike to Russian River Falls followed by a meet-and-greet barbecue at the Fish Magnet Guide Service in Soldotna, which also provides the lodging for the veterans over the course of the trip. On Thursday it’s back to Homer for more halibut, and the week will end with flying out in a float plane to a secret spot for more salmon fishing.
Bill Gray, another veteran on the trip, said it was great to see veterans from different age groups and backgrounds connecting with one another. Gray has been in a wheelchair for the last 47 years after being involved in a car accident while serving in the U.S. Marines. HAVE-Alaska ensures that their adventures are accessible to all, and Gray said that he is excited for the float-plane trip on Friday. Gert Bindrich joked that Gray actually had an easier time than some of the others on Wednesday’s hike.
“He got to sit the whole time!” he said.
In the past, HAVE-Alaska has offered other kinds of adventures — including bear hunting — but Halstead said that the fishing trips have been especially popular and added that he and his team of volunteers have those trips down to a science. Veterans who attend the trips have all of their expenses paid for by the organization, which is funded through individual donations as well as sponsorships from local businesses.
The total cost to sponsor a veteran for a fishing trip is $2,500 and includes airfare, meals, lodging, fish processing, charters and licenses. The only requirement for the veterans is that they have been honorably discharged from their military service. Applications for the program are available on the group’s website, havealaska.org.