Alaska State Elks has a photo gallery of the Wounded Warriors event online, available here.
The fourth annual Wounded Warriors project went off without a perceivable hitch this weekend, with the weather even cooperating to make the two-day event particularly sweet for the participating service members.
More than 100 soldiers who have been wounded in action while serving in the military came together Friday and Saturday to enjoy good food, good company, and good fishing on the Kenai. The Kenai River Professional Guide Association once again organized the event, with local and statewide businesses coming together for the fourth year in a row to provide food, lodging, gifts, and guided fishing to the veterans.
“It’s such a great program,” said Anchorage’s Andrew Jackson, who served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “So much sponsorship comes out for it and there’s so much support for all the soldiers. It’s really great to see.”
Jackson is in the process of being medically retired from the U.S. Army due to combat-related injuries. He has endured three separate instances of brain damage, with one occurring in May 2009 when his face and left frontal cortex were crushed. Forced to relearn how to speak, Jackson completed an extensive amount of speech therapy and says he now only stumbles over or loses a word every now and again.
“A lot of times you get stuck on your post so much you forget how much support you actually have out in the community,” he said. “So to come out here and have this going on, it’s a good refresher. It helps us.”
Jackson caught the biggest fish during Friday’s session, with his king clocking in at 33 pounds and 40 inches.
Fellow Iraq War veteran Kenny Gaughn snagged the biggest fish on Saturday, with his coming in at 37 pounds and 45 inches. Gaughn, though, decided not to keep the prize king for himself. Instead, he gave it to Vietnam War veteran Chuck Schantag, who happened to be in the boat with him.
“I figure the Vietnam vets paved the way for the Iraqi soldiers,” Gaughn said. “Because when they came home, they got treated pretty badly. They made sure we didn’t get treated the same way. So that was just my way of saying thank you.”
Gaughn expressed the same selflessness during last year’s Wounded Warriors outing, when he gave his haul of silver salmon to his squad leader.
“Even though there’s a 40-year difference between our experiences, there’s so much in common still,” Schantag said of his younger boatmates. “There’s a bond there. We all fought a war; we all know what it’s like.
“I’d have any of these guys in my outfit in a hot second,” he laughed.
Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke during the Saturday barbecue, voicing their appreciation and admiration for the men and women who served and continue to serve in the military. The two also touted the various sponsors and community members for coming together to roll out the red carpet for those who were injured while serving their country.
“This is the power of a small town; a town that really, really cares about veterans,” Schantag echoed. “And that speaks a lot for Kenai, Soldotna, and the whole area.”
Major sponsors included Central Peninsula Hospital, the Alaska State Elks Association, Neeser Construction Inc., BP Alaska, and ConocoPhillips.
Wounded Warrior Committee Chairman and KRPGA President David Goggia summarized his reasons for putting on the event by saying, “It’s just doing the right thing.” Goggia related an anecdote from the first Wounded Warrior gathering in 2008 to illustrate his point.
“We had one of the soldiers in the boat telling the guide that he’d been home from war for several months,” Goggia remembered, “and this was the first time he felt like he had really been home; being out on the river, away from the base.
“That told me we were doing the right thing for the right reasons.”