Fishing for Wounded Warriors

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By Colleen LeMay

Ninety-four percent of the money from the Reel American Heroes Foundation goes directly back to its programs.

Ninety-four percent of the money from the Reel American Heroes Foundation goes directly back to its programs.

Bedeviled by pain, partial paralysis and a nagging fear that everyday life held potentially life-threatening danger, U.S. Marine veteran Nelson Zapata hit rock bottom. He was trapped in his head and afraid to leave home.

Then, almost three years ago, someone at a support group meeting invited him to a bass fishing tournament sponsored by the Woodbridge-based Reel American Heroes Foundation. Zapata hesitated and said, “I don’t know. I haven’t fished in a really, really long time.”

“Look, dude,” the guy told him. “It’s a blast. You will enjoy it. That’s a promise.” A nervous Zapata went to the nonprofit’s signature event at Hope Springs Marina in Stafford. “I had to tell myself, It’s going to be OK,” Zapata said. “It’s going to be OK.” On a boat, he knew he would have nowhere to run.

Once he was in the boat and on the Potomac River, his fearful thoughts ebbed. His fishing partner, a foundation volunteer, was fun. The two fished and talked. They didn’t win the tournament, but the Marine veteran won something else. Two days later, he bought a fishing license and pole and began to reclaim the sport he last enjoyed as a child.

Annual Tournament Brings Veterans Together

More wounded heroes like Zapata are getting fishing therapy, thanks to Reel American Heroes, founded in 2010 by Ronald DeFreitas, who works full-time for the Prince William County Schools Information Technology Center and runs the foundation as an unpaid volunteer.

Last year about 80 veterans, mostly local residents, participated in the tournament. At this year’s event, set for July 23, organizers hope to boost that to 125. In addition the organization hopes to get a new saltwater fishing branch in Virginia Beach up and running within a month. Volunteers across the United States stand ready to take veterans on solo trips. Beyond that the group has not yet decided where and how to expand.

DeFreitas, battling advanced prostate cancer, referred media inquiries to his daughter, Ashley Gardner. An elementary school nurse, Gardner, 29, is currently executive director, but the whole family helps with Reel American Heroes and its events. “No one makes a salary, and 94 percent of our money goes directly back to programs,” Gardner said.

Her father founded Reel American Heroes after working as a volunteer for similar groups. He met a veteran in a wheelchair whose positive outlook fundamentally changed DeFreitas’ own life views.

Some disabled veterans say that civilians have a hard time relating to them. The Reel American Heroes Foundation gives those veterans a chance to meet each other and spend time together

Some disabled veterans say that civilians have a hard time relating to them. The Reel American Heroes Foundation gives those veterans a chance to meet each other and spend time together

Never Leave a Man or Woman Behind

What makes Reel American Heroes different is that it never leaves out a veteran in need, Gardner said.

“PTSD, wheelchair bound, missing a limb—we will pull a hero straight from the hospital with medical approval,” she said. “If there is anyone out there who has served and sacrificed for this country, then we want to get them out on the water regardless of the injury.”

And volunteers never just send veterans onto the Potomac for a day and then say goodbye. Gardner said, “We are teaching them to fish, providing them with everything they need to continue the sport … We are building relationships and developing hobbies that can help them relax and cope and heal.”

It worked for Zapata. “When I go fishing, it is just me and my dog and nature,” Zapata, 40, said. “I am able to get everything else out of my mind and just be in the moment.”

Zapata is a talented bass trombone player, who started playing in middle school. He auditioned for and earned a Marine band position. All members of the Marines’ 10 field bands also go through basic training and are assigned to combat roles. Those roles include machine gun platoons, which was Zapata’s choice, or other duties. Marine musicians take on those combat roles if their bands are deployed to war zones.

Zapata suffered injuries after lifting 600 pounds of sound gear after a performance. He left active duty in 2002. Today his lower legs remain partially paralyzed, and he tends to trip.

The injuries to his outlook on life were debilitating as well. He suffered from post-traumatic stress, the term for fear and anxiety triggered by shocking, scary or dangerous incidents. In Zapata’s case, the initial trigger was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon.

The stress later was worsened by “survivor’s guilt” because he was not able to join his buddies when they were deployed to the Middle East. “For the longest time, I didn’t know if anybody got hurt, if everybody was safe,” Zapata said. “I was out of contact.”

Thanks to fishing and his service dog, a Greyhound named Fallon, he is recovering. More fishing would be even better, but Zapata has a full-time job as an engineer.

Other veterans also have benefited from fishing. Josh Evans left the Army about a year ago. After working up to 17 hours a day on satellites, he took a year off to spend with his wife and four children. He now is an assistant manager at a Starbucks coffee shop where he hopes to move up to manager.

“I wake up every day, and it hurts to do everything,” Evans said. “And I still have to take care of my family. It [the pain]all has to be on the back burner.”

He grew up fishing. “It’s part of what my family has always done,” Evans said. “It’s always been a good escape for me.”

He was on active duty in the Army for nine and a half years. Evans was deployed to war zones several times in support of combat operations. Early in his career, he was injured moving heavy weapons shields on a military vehicle after a call about a potential car bomb. He suffered a few other injuries as well.

“It shortened my career,” he said. “I was able to stay in for awhile, but eventually my body wouldn’t do what it needed to do to be in a leadership role.” Evans was a staff sergeant in charge of 70 to 80 soldiers.

A few years ago, a buddy told him about the annual fishing tournament for veterans. “I said, ‘That sounds freakin’ phenomenal.’” Evans and his assigned fishing partner, Calvin “Catfish” Hunter, a Vietnam veteran from Richmond, won the tournament the first year Evans participated.

Hanging out with other veterans at the tournaments is supremely satisfying. “As a disabled veteran, a wounded warrior, a lot of people, civilians, can’t relate to us,” Evans said. “The way we talk, our sense of humor, the things that make us break down.”

The biggest hero is DeFreitas himself, Evans said: “You know he has an idea of the impact he and his family have on people like me, but I don’t know if he knows the full extent of it.”

Colleen LaMay ( worked for nearly 30 years for a daily newspaper in Boise, Idaho. She moved to Virginia in 2010 with her family.


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