As they milled about on a brick patio in Chilmark, a group of men and women chatted about the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Vineyard Sound glistened in the distance while a ruby sun set.
For seven soldiers recovering from injuries the tranquil scene was far removed from the reality but not the memories of heat, dust, sudden explosions and hospital wards.
The soldiers had traveled to Martha’s Vineyard on September 18, from Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia and Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, the new home of Walter Reed patients after that hospital closed last spring. For the four days last week, they enjoyed a brief respite from their determined efforts to reclaim the lives they led before their country sent them off to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and they returned by way of military hospitals.
They fished and fished some more, and not necessarily because they are fishermen. They left with fresh memories of the Derby and Island hospitality.
No one appeared to have a bigger smile about catching fish than Staff Sergeant Carla Hockaday. In the Army for the past 21 years and eight months, she turned 43 the Sunday she arrived on the Vineyard, an event marked with a birthday cake.
She returned from Afghanistan in September 2009. Her assigned job was human resources. “But you never do just your job,” she said. “Whenever I had extra time or someone needed a TC [tactical commander], that’s what I did.”
In essence, she sat in the passenger side of a vehicle and looked out for trouble. “Things out of place that the driver can’t see because they’re watching the road.”
The mother of a 21-year-old, she completed more than 100 combat missions. One morning a large bomb exploded just outside the gate of her barracks. “I was just coming from the showers and heard a loud, loud noise and of course everything went dark and that was it. Dust and dirt and rocks and people screaming …”
Training kicked in. Everyone, including soldiers from several other countries, began working together. “Language wasn’t a barrier; we all knew what to do.”
Sgt. Hockaday saw the Vineyard trip on a hospital recreation department list. “It was a place I had always dreamt of going to,” she said.
An Island to go fishing
The trip, the Beach Plum Inn American Heroes 2011 Saltwater Challenge, was offered as an all expenses paid trip to an island to fish in something called the Derby. The men and women, all still on active duty and most unfamiliar with the Vineyard, did not quite know what to expect.
What they found is that the Derby community and all it represents on Martha’s Vineyard – camaraderie wrapped in a fishing tournament – was prepared to embrace them and their accompanying family members.
The Nixon family of Chilmark and Washington, DC made the visit possible. Bob and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, the Menemsha Inn and the Home Port Restaurant, prefer to credit to their son Jack, 10, who had the notion three years ago to invite some soldiers to fish the Derby. But ten-year-olds like to run and fish and run some more.
The Nixons arranged air travel, provided all accommodations and enlisted a willing community to help.
Charter captains signed up to take the soldiers fishing. Surf fishermen arranged a beach buggy convoy to Chappy. Volunteers provided shopping trips and Island tours. And inn general manager Dennis Barquinero and assistant manager Maria Black and their staff made sure that no request went unfulfilled and no detail overlooked. That included trucking everything needed for a beach barbecue out to East Beach.
Speaking about the myriad of details and planning that culminated in the arrival of the soldiers and their family members, Bob Nixon said, “When you see them out here. It certainly seems that it was no big deal. It’s just great to have an opportunity to thank these men and women.”
A mother’s love
Valence Scott is the mother of Sergeant Robert Scott 3rd. Her only son worked as a trader for Goldman Sachs in Manhattan when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. He lost a lot of friends.
Robert gave up his job and enlisted in the Army. In February 2009, as a consequence of a long flight while on the tarmac in Kuwait, he a blood clot in his leg traveled to his lungs and cut off the flow of oxygen to his brain. He was in a coma, his survival in doubt, but he reawakened and faced a long road to recovery as a result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). His mother has been by his side literally every step of the way.
Valence and her husband live on Long Island. Valence had a good job in Manhattan with an international architectural firm. Each weekend, she or her husband traveled to Walter Reed Hospital.
When she realized she needed to spend more time with her son, now 37, she asked for a leave of absence. The company refused to grant her the time, so she left her job. She now lives on the hospital grounds. In addition to helping her son, she spends time with many of the other soldiers.
“In everything there is always some good,” she said of losing her job. “If they have critical appointments I’ll go with them. I am not only helping my son, but I’m helping other soldiers. I have met so many young men that I consider them my sons.”
Her son would like to remain in the Army but that will not be possible. He faces a medical retirement.
“You know he did what he wanted to do and he loved it,” she said. “He’s an amazing child. You know, we’ve been through so much, but we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
A good day
Staff Sergeant Scott Beauchamp and his wife Michele walked into the dining room for lunch after fishing in choppy seas the first day. “I never threw up so much,” Michele said with a laugh.
Scott, a reservist for 24 years, is a member of the New York National Guard 827 Engineering Company and the father of a daughter, 19, and son, 16. A big guy who now walks with a cane, his civilian job was driving a New York City transit bus, a combat assignment in its own right.
He was working in Kunnar province, Afghanistan when he was wounded on December 28, 2010. “I was six weeks from coming home when I got hit. I was doing a recon and we hit an IED [improvised explosive device]. It was a good day. I was the only one who got hurt. It could’ve been worse, you know.”
He arrived at Walter Reed on January 22. He is currently an outpatient and waits anxiously for his release.
Scott likes to fish, so he jumped at the chance to visit Martha’s Vineyard. He said trips like this are very good for morale. “People see, especially the wounded guys and girls, that people still care. If you look at it, we’ve been fighting a war for ten years. If you don’t paint your house for ten years you don’t think about it. But it’s nice to know that people still think about us, doing a job … some guys would never get to go fishing like this.”
A Derby winner
Senior Airman Emmanuel Thompson first served in the Marines, then joined the Air Force. “It’s a whole lot easier,” he said as he sat on a couch next to his wife of the last four years, Tabetha.
A heavy equipment operator assigned to a construction unit in Qatar, Afghanistan, he received a serious head injury after two months in the country, when a piece of equipment failed.
Hardly newlyweds, he and his wife Tabetha were high school sweethearts who always kept in touch. “We’ve known each other for over half our lives,” she said with a laugh. Throughout his deployment they kept in touch by telephone and webcam.
Emanuel said the trip was a welcome break from the atmosphere of the hospital. “It gives you a chance to feel normal again,” he said. “It is just a chance to feel like there is nothing wrong – knowing it is – but I’m not letting my illness take advantage of me while I’m here.”
A reporter suggested that it was easy to feel normal around Island Derby fisherman. Emanuel had seen enough to laugh knowingly. On Wednesday, fishing with Captain Buddy Vanderhoop, he caught a 34.72-pound striped bass that currently has him in third place.
Return to normal
What is extraordinary about America’s men and women warriors is how very ordinary they are.
For some, the adjustment to civilian life and peace has been as difficult, if not more, than the adjustment to war.
“I just want to be normal,” Specialist John Jarvis said. John completed a four-year stint in the Marines right out of high school. Then in 2006, patriotism and a need to test himself led him to enlist in the Massachusetts National Guard.
He assured his family he was too old, that he would never be sent overseas. A gunner assigned to the 747 MP unit, he served one year in Ramadi, Iraq.
John was responsible for identifying the living detainees and the dead using biometric scan technology of retinas. “The casualties were never in one piece, know what I’m saying. Shot up or just blown up and we would have to put the pieces back together and still scan the thing.”
The experience left the 44-year-old father from Winthrop deeply scarred, but he is healing. “I haven’t had a nightmare in a while. But I used to have wicked bad nightmares, and I had a hard time shaving. I couldn’t look in the mirror. I used to put duct tape on the mirror. That’s what’s got me wrapped around the axle. That’s what got me down at the hospital.”
John said that many of the patients play video games and remain medicated. He likes to get out. When he saw a notice for the trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he thought it was a typographical error. “I’m happy as a lark,” he said, sitting in the Beach Plum Inn last Monday.
He would like to go home, but the doctors are not ready to allow it. He had problems when he took a job working for FEMA.
“I mean, I just want to be normal,” John said. “Am I ever going to go back to the person that I was before?”
A cool pin
Sergeant Jerry Solis of Dallas, Texas, short and compact and wearing dark glasses to protect his injured eyes, was a member of the 89th MPs out of Fort Hood. Over the course of almost 11 years, he served three back-to-back tours in Iraq.
His job was to travel to distant Iraqi police stations and assist with training. Often he would travel in a small convoy of four vehicles to towns up to 100 miles away. “And we didn’t have no support because we weren’t down in Baghdad, we were out in the middle of nowhere. So when stuff happened and we got hit or anything, we would probably have to wait an hour to two hours for anybody to support us. It was a whole different experience being out there.”
One of the older combat soldiers, a challenge he faced was working with young soldiers who had no everyday life experience away from home. “It’s pretty much like being a parent,” he said.
Some get married before they deploy. They are 19, 20 years old, he said. “And you got to deal with them when their wife is breaking up with them or divorce and they still got to go out on missions and you need them to focus on their job.
“Before I got back, my fiancée got killed. I lost her when I was in Iraq. In a car accident. A drunk driver hit them. I still had to do everything I had to do.”
His fiancée was pregnant. “When I got home I shut down for a while because I didn’t know what to do next. When I was over there everything was easy because I knew my job and I knew what to do. That’s the reason a lot of us go back, because we can’t deal with life here anymore. There we got stability. We know our job. We know what to do.”
Jerry was in multiple gunfights and experienced five IED explosions and multiple concussions. The last, an above ground explosion, left him with injuries that included hearing loss and burned corneas.
Following the last explosion, he returned home by way of the hospital in November 2008, to a series of doctors and appointments. The 30-year-old soldier went back to school. He has been offered an information technology job with the National Security Service.
“I think it’s getting better,” he said.
He loved the Vineyard architecture but most of all he liked seeing the ocean. “It’s nice, it’s beautiful out here,” he said of Martha’s Vineyard. “And I’m not used to being surrounded by that much water.”
Each night he was here, Jerry and the other fishermen went to the Derby weigh station in Edgartown with their catches. Daily winners receive a small pin to signify their catch. True Derby fishermen value those pins, and that spirit was not lost on the newcomer.
“All I wanted was a pin,” Jerry said. “It looked really cool.”
Duty, Honor, Country
It took some doing, but Sarah Nixon cajoled Second Lieutenant Tyson Quink, a double-amputee, to make the long trip despite the travel hurdles. Tera Quink, his wife, signed him up before he knew it.
She accompanied him and remained at his side where she had been more or less the entire time after Tyson stepped on an explosive device in Afghanistan.
Quiet and modest, Tera, 25, said she and Tyson met “in college.” That college was West Point, the Army’s premier military academy.
Tera entered active Army service in May 2009 and arrived in Afghanistan last March. A signal officer, she was responsible for computer and radio systems for a battalion based outside of Kandahar. Asked to describe her experience in Afghanistan, she said, “It was hot.”
The couple deployed at the same time and shared a flight to Afghanistan. Although they rarely saw each other, they communicated by email. “We tried to email at least once a day just to say hi, but sometimes you couldn’t do that,” she said.
She was reading in her tent about 10:45 pm, June 5, when she learned that her husband had been injured. Tyson was still in surgery when she arrived in Kandahar. Several hospitals and thousands of miles later, they arrived at Walter Reed on June 10.
“We were on the same flight in and the same flight out,” she said.
Two fellow West Point grads, also amputees, who were part of last year’s group, had urged Tyson to make the trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
“It’s a good break from everything and helps him get back in the swing of things,” Tera said. “I thought it would be a fun trip, and anything to get out of Bethesda. It’s been great. I didn’t expect to catch a fish, so that’s been a bonus.”
“I didn’t really want to travel. I was kind of reluctant at first,” Tyson said. “My wife said yes before asking me.”
On May 23, 2009, the day he graduated, he was commissioned a field artillery officer in the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum.
He did not plan on a military career. “I expected to fill my commitment and go do other things,” he said.
But, there he was on a patrol. He cut across an area and was walking toward one of his squad leaders. “I stepped on a pressure plate IED and it blew up. Took my feet off right off the bat.”
He is happy with the treatment he has received in the hospital. “I’m definitely getting stronger and trying to learn how to walk again,” he said. “It’s good to get away and have a different change of venue,” he said of the trip.
Meanwhile, the wars and the fighting continue.
“It’s a daily grind for sure. People are working hard, fighting hard everyday. It doesn’t stop. There’s no such thing as a weekend, no such thing as a holiday. Every day is just a grind. Tough fighting, and you’ve got great people doing it.”