For members of the military, especially those deployed overseas, vacations can be few and far between. That’s where organizations like the Kenai River Foundation have stepped in, to give men and women in uniform a chance to relax and bond while reeling in a few fish.
The Kenai River Foundation hosted its 13th annual Wounded Warriors fishing trip on Friday and Saturday and brought 68 active duty soldiers stationed in Alaska down to the peninsula to fish for salmon on the Kenai River.
The trip is free for the soldiers and is made possible thanks to donations from sponsors including the Central Peninsula Hospital, Alaska Communications, Fairweather, LLC, Price Gregory International and Siemens Building Technologies.
Professional fishing guides volunteered their services for the two days and riders from several chapters of the American Legion provided a military escort for the buses that brought the soldiers primarily stationed at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to and from Anchorage.
When asked why the American Legion started providing the escorts five years ago, one of the riders, Craig “Blue” Breshears simply pointed at the soldiers coming off the fishing boats.
“These gentlemen and ladies right here. That’s why we got involved,” Breshears said.
Nineteen riders made up the escort this year, and Breshears said that they do it as a gesture of appreciation to the soldiers.
Most of the soldiers caught their limit on Friday and Saturday, and the more than 540 salmon caught were frozen and distributed evenly among all the participants, leaving no cooler unfilled. Friday night also featured a banquet with prime rib and prize giveaways, and Saturday afternoon included a barbecue at Centennial Park.
Spc. Gabriel Rodriguez had a lot of good things to say about the trip after he got off the boat on Friday.
“I’ve done a little bit of fishing in Alaska, like on Bird Creek and the Russian (River), but this experience on the Kenai was probably the craziest one,” Rodriguez said. “The fish were constant and consistent. Put up a good fight. And the experience that this organization put on for us, it’s something that you’d have to pay a lot of money to do.”
Staff Sgt. Richard Ellis, who’s from Alaska and has been active duty in the Army for the last 14 years, also recognized the significance of having the professional guides volunteer their services for the two days.
“These volunteers make their living being fishing guides, and they’re setting aside two days for us. That could easily be a thousand bucks out of their pockets,” Ellis said. “They were awesome, courteous and fun, and I couldn’t ask for more.”
Many of the soldiers didn’t have injuries or wounds that were readily noticeable, but Ellis explained that, for members of the military, the wounds they carry can be more than just physical.
“Not all wounds are on the outside. A lot of us carry them on the inside,” Ellis said.
Ellis said that the fishing trip is something that many soldiers miss out on because they think it will come with some out-of-pocket expenses, but that’s not the case. Everything is provided at no cost, from the room and board to the fishing poles.
“Everything was streamlined. I’m not really a person that likes to be catered to, but I decided to let my guard down and see what happens, and I didn’t have to worry about a thing,” Ellis said. “Rooms were provided, food was provided, I didn’t have to buy any bait … All I had to do was pack my bag. It don’t get no easier than that.”
Ellis learned about the trip almost at the last minute but was still able to sign up in time and encouraged his neighbor, Staff Sgt. Louigy Buduan, to do the same.
“I think a lot of soldiers have that mentality that you (Ellis) have about not wanting to be catered to, so they don’t know what to expect,” Buduan said. “It’s really a great thing that the community has come together and provided this opportunity for us.”
Sgt. Sam Ober said that he had never had an experience quite like the one provided by the Wounded Warriors fishing trip.