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'Bama Bassin' Fun for Our Heroes

By: David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The generosity of Alabama’s outdoors community continues to amaze me. When it comes to sharing our great outdoors with our military – veterans, active duty and wounded warriors – Alabama shines.

A perfect example of the community working together to treat our veterans and active military to Alabama’s abundant outdoors treasures occurred in Macon County when the A HERO Foundation put together a bass fishing weekend for the military, including Marines of all ages and from all parts of the country.

Joe Whatley of Montgomery and Capt. Lee Stuckey of the Marines Recruiting Station in Montgomery put together a deer hunting event last season, and it was such a success they decided to include other outdoors adventures.

“I sent an email out to about 150 of my friends asked for their help,” Whatley said. “Every one of them answered. Some of them were going to be out of town, but they offered us their place, or money, or food or services. We ended up with 21 boats with several celebrities and TV and radio hosts. We wound up with 31 veterans, primarily wounded veterans who have been in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Desert Storm. It’s just been a great community gathering. We’ve had a lot of our neighbors out in the country. We fished three different lakes and are having a great time.

“Everybody likes to have a reward. People want to see a reward for their hard work. The reward I get is when I see one of these veterans grinning from ear to ear because they just caught a fish or they had a great time riding in a boat or riding in the country on a four-wheeler. They’re doing things they’ve never done.”

The foundation is now planning at least four events a year: a deer hunt, turkey hunt, freshwater fishing and saltwater fishing. When word got around about the hunting events in Macon County, Whatley began to get invitations from hunting lodges all around the state.

“The deer event in January is going to be based in Macon County, but we’ve got lodges that have offered their places in the Alexander City area, one at Enterprise and one just east of Dothan,” Whatley said. “These are folks who have come up and had a good time. They’ve gone home and told friends about it. The friends have called and said they wanted to be part of it. They said, ‘We want to help. What can we do?’ You see the landowners and lodge owners having just as much fun as the veterans.”

Master Sgt. Jerry Mills of the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in Montgomery unhooks a fire-tail worm from a nice bass during the event.

Whatley said a saltwater fishing event is in the planning stages. Several charter boat captains from Orange Beach and Pensacola have offered their boats to take the veterans fishing. He said they hope to schedule it during the 2012 red snapper season.

Whatley said he and Stuckey try to reach out to veterans of all ages to participate in the foundation’s events for obvious reasons.

“I think we had one veteran who was on Iwo Jima and a few who had been in Korea,” Whatley said. “We’ve had some with some pretty serious injuries they’ve overcome. Then we have the 18- and 19-year-olds who are suffering from a variety of injuries. This gives the older veterans a chance to share their experiences of how to lead great lives with the young guys who have just come back from a life-changing event.”

Greg Vinson, the professional bass angler from Wetumpka who is fishing the Bassmaster Elite series, said Rick Redmon of Venture Outdoors TV let him know about the event and he cleared his schedule.

“I did my first Wounded Warriors event back during the summer at the Bassmaster All-Star event,” Vinson said. “That was an awesome event for me. When they asked about doing this, I didn’t think twice about it.

“I know I’m really fortunate to do what I do for a living. To think that people look up to me for what I do is pretty humbling. The biggest thing for me, this is a way for me to come out and say, ‘Thanks,’ to the ones serving now, the ones who have been injured and our other veterans. I know that what I do for a living wouldn’t be possible without the sacrifices these people have made. It’s a real treat for me, and I think I may get more out of it than they do in the end. To get out and share my fishing experience with these guys, who are able to escape what they’ve been going through, is a real special event for me.”

Bill Bonner, a 20-year Marine Corps veteran, digs a big bass out of the livewell while fishing with pro Greg Vinson of Wetumpka.

Vinson had 80-year-old Bill Bonner in the boat with him last Saturday. Bonner, who now lives in Wetumpka, served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars as a 20-year Marine Corps veteran.

“I tell you, I couldn’t believe it when Mr. Bonner told me how old he was,” Vinson said. “You know when I fish, I cover the water pretty extensively. I don’t leave much behind. But Mr. Bonner was right there with me. He was cleaning up anything I left behind.”

Despite his “Bigfish” nickname, Stephen Bass, a mixed martial arts fighter who is one of the stars in Ultimate Fighter Season 14, really couldn’t offer a great deal of fishing advice to the veterans, but that didn’t deter him from offering his enthusiastic support.

“It’s a really big deal for me to contribute to this event for these guys,” Bass said. “It may just be helping them have a good time by having a good time with them. I was very fortunate to get the call to help out. I think it’s a great thing for us to give back to these Marines who have given so much for us already. It’s really a big honor to be asked to be here.”

Stuckey said his goal is to raise awareness of the sacrifices made by those who serve in the military and everyone connected.

“It’s not just about one big event a year,” Stuckey said. “It’s about every single day. It’s about the sacrifices these guys make when they’re injured, being away from their families, and those sacrifices are worth a ‘thank you.’ It can be something like taking them to lunch or bowling or fishing, whatever. You can never tell a service member ‘thank you’ enough.

One of the active-duty Marines at the event was Sgt. Brandon Didde, who is stationed in California. Didde enlisted in 2001, went through the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and fought in Fallujah in 2004. He suffered concussions and a traumatic brain injury from IEDs (improvised explosive devices). When his parents passed away in 2007, Didde got out of the Marines for a year-and-a-half. He soon realized what was now important.

“I got back in in 2009 and served in Afghanistan in 2010,” Didde said. “I just missed the Marine Corps. I missed the brotherhood. I was kind of lost without my brothers. It’s a whole different world. I need them around.

“These type events help us out a lot. You get out of the monotony of working every day as an infantry Marine. It’s good to get a break and have some fun.”

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