FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - “I’ll keep doing this as long as they’ll keep coming,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Bowers, support operations officer in charge, 1st Sustainment Brigade and one of the founders of Fishing for Freedom. “For me, the best part is just seeing the smiles on the soldiers’ faces.”
Bowers, a Pottsville, Pa., native and lifelong fisherman, said he started competitive fishing in 2007 after joining the Leavenworth Bass Club at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
In 2008, Bowers along with a group of soldiers and retired military members of the Leavenworth Bass Club created the Fishing for Freedom Tournament, a black bass fishing competition for veterans of the Global War on Terrorism.
What started out as a humble project meant to combine their support for the troops with their love of fishing has turned into an annual competition supported by hundreds of volunteers and businesses throughout Kansas and Missouri. This three-day event occurs every Columbus holiday weekend at the Truman Reservoir in Missouri.
“The intent for the weekend is for the soldier to show up and not have to worry about anything,” said Bowers.
Bowers said upon reception, veterans and volunteer boaters receive free food, free lodging, free launch from the fishing ramps, access to the buildings and facilities and a tackle pack stuffed with fishing rod and reel, tackle bag and gear.
“You walk out of that meeting with everything you need to go fishing the next day,” he said.
In addition to the fishing, lodging, gear and food, Fishing for Freedom also has guest speakers who are well-known in the fishing community.
Bowers said some of the guest speakers include fishing icon Denny Brauer, owner of Ranger Boats Forest Wood, and tournament fishing organization FLW professional and retired sergeant first class James Watson.
He said the event is open to all veterans of the Global War on Terrorism but the group focuses on wounded warriors at warrior transition units. He said they reach out to soldiers as far away as Fort Polk, La.
Bowers said around 150 warriors participate per event, 80 of which come from WTUs. This past Columbus Day weekend, 15 soldiers from Fort Riley participated.
Staff Sgt. Frank Girardin, a self-described combat engineer “through and through” currently assigned to the Fort Riley Warrior Transition Battalion said he really enjoyed attending Fishing for Freedom.
Girardin, who deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, sustained severe injuries after being in a car wreck in Kansas that put him in a coma for seven months. Although he has made progress with his rehabilitation, he still struggles with walking and mobility.
This 13-year veteran said his enjoyment wasn’t hindered despite his physical limitations because the event catered to wounded veterans and the volunteers made them feel very welcomed.
“My boater patiently helped me on the boat and off the boat and back on the boat,” said Girardin.
Although it was his first time attending the Fishing for Freedom competition, Girardin said he had fun and learned a lot.
“It was a big stress relief for me,” he added.
Bowers, who has deployed three times, said there are numerous sponsors from all over including the Kansas City area and the local community at Truman.
“Local unions out of the K.C. area provide a large portion of the sponsors,” said Bowers. “Our supporters have put together a lot of money and volunteer time to assist with taking these soldiers out.”
The boats and boat captains volunteer to take the veteran out and fish with him or her.
“The boaters are folks (ranging) from FLW pros to weekend anglers who fish tournaments every weekend to guys who just fun-fish and want to take a soldier fishing,” Bowers said
“It's very humbling to see the love and support these people show us when they don't even know us,” said Master Sgt. David Ash, a chaplain’s assistant with the Utah National Guard, who is also currently assigned to the Fort Riley WTB.
This was Ash’s first time attending Fishing for Freedom.
Bowers said the original Fishing for Freedom committee of eight has grown to about 21 board members, including several spouses.
He said his wife takes care of the lodging to ensure each veteran’s accommodation needs are met. He said she talks to them through email and on the phone, and she knows every one of them by name.
“Whatever they need to be taken care of, it gets taken care of,” said Bowers. “Whether they need to bring a nurse or a service dog, all of those intricacies are handled by point-to-point conversations to make sure they are put in a room that can accommodate them.”
Bowers said he thinks one of the reasons veterans enjoy the tournament is the camaraderie at each event which is reminiscent of the camaraderie they had when they were in the military.
“It's constant story-telling,” said Bowers. “We talk about outdoors stuff to deployment stuff to regular Army stuff."
Girardin and Ash said the time outside and the time spent with other veterans made the trip a blast and they highly recommend Fishing for Freedom to other GWOT veterans.
For more information, visit http://fishingforfreedom.us/