On Sunday, a select group of men and women from around the country — each with a unique story, all bound by the blood and loss experienced in combat in one of the toughest, most remote parts of the world — will touch down at Martha’s Vineyard Airport and join more than 3,000 fishermen competing in the 68th Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
The soldiers, both active and retired, some still recovering from battle wounds suffered in Afghanistan, will spend five healing days on the Island accompanied by family members at the invitation of the Nixon family of Chilmark, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant.
It is all part of the the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, a fishing respite now entering its fifth year that began when Jack Nixon, then 7, saw a newspaper photo essay about the challenges facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and told his dad, a documentary filmmaker, he wished some veterans could fish the Derby.
No event of this magnitude happens without considerable community help. A group of Menemsha charter boat captains, members of the Derby committee and the community at large are preparing to welcome the soldiers who will be treated to fishing outings, dinners and even some golf.
Two of the soldiers who visited last year will return, Sarah Guinan Nixon told The Times in a telephone call Monday. They are Army 1st Lt. Nathan Rimpf, who was leading a patrol on July 8, 2012 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device and lost both his legs, and Captain Benjamin Harrow, a West Point graduate and special forces commander who lost both his legs and two fingers in an explosion on May 15, 2012.
“Its quite extraordinary to see their progress in all areas one year later,” Ms. Nixon said. “Nathan has learned how to ski and Ben is playing hockey every weekend. It’s just awesome.”
Story of valor
In addition to soldiers currently recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, the group will also include four soldiers who served in Combat Outpost (COP) Keating set at the bottom of three steep mountains just 14 miles from the Pakistan border. In one horrific battle on October 3, 2009, up to 400 Taliban attacked 53 U.S. soldiers. Eight men died that day and 22 were wounded in one of the war’s bloodiest encounters. Two participants in the 12-hour fight at COP Keating received Medals of Honor, the first time since 1967 that one battle has resulted in two living troops being awarded the nation’s highest medal for bravery in battle.
Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent, described the men and their battle in his bestselling book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” published by Little, Brown and Company and due to be released in paperback in October.
Mr. Tapper and his wife are friends of the Nixons. This spring, Ms. Nixon called Mr. Tapper to see who among the group of men he had chronicled might like to visit the Island and participate in the Saltwater Challenge.
Mr. Tapper made some calls to some of the men he had come to know intimately over the course of writing his book and asked who might be able to use a week on the Vineyard. In characteristic fashion, Mr. Tapper told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday, the men thought first of their comrades.
“Not surprisingly, I heard from a few who said, thank you for the offer but there are guys who deserve it more than I do, so I appreciate it but find those guys.”
In the aftermath of the battle, the poor location of COP Keating was the subject of an Army investigation. In an email to The Times, Mr. Tapper said the four men who will visit next week “all served at perhaps the least defensible outpost in Afghanistan: Combat Outpost Keating, built at the bottom of three steep mountains in one of the most legendarily hostile parts of the country. Just 14 miles from the porous Pakistan border.
“Randy Robinson was with 3-71 CAV. He’s coming with his wife and 4 kids, ages 4, 2, and twin 1-year-olds. Randy was seriously hurt in 2006 during a rollover in Khost and then also due to explosions at what was then called PRT Kamdesh (soon becoming Combat Outpost Keating). Randy served with 1LT Ben Keating, who died in a rollover in November 2006 and after whom the outpost was named.
“Nathan Nash and Shane Scherer were with 6-4 CAV, serving at COP Keating from 2008-2009. Shane was severely wounded by an RPG head wound just days before leaving the COP for good. He had to relearn how to swallow, walk, and talk. His existence is a miracle.
“The commander of Nathan and Shane’s company, CPT Rob Yllescas, was killed by a radio-controlled IED — he was targeted for assassination by the Taliban.
“Kirk Birchfield was with 3-61 CAV, the company attacked so overwhelmingly on October 3 2009. He and some others were off base that day and flew in as part of the Quick Reaction Force. Eight U.S. troops were killed that day — the deadliest day for the U.S. that year in Afghanistan. COP Keating shut down days later.”
Asked what Vineyarders should know about the men and women who will visit next week, Mr. Tapper described a sacrifice that continues long after the explosions.
“Their selflessness and courage is almost beyond description. Long after this war has ended for the U.S., long after the public considers it ‘over,’ they will bear the wounds — both physical and less visible scars — for the rest of their days.”
The American Heroes Challenge begins Sunday, September 29, and ends Friday, October 4. The public is invited to welcome the men when they arrive at the airport and cheer them on at the Derby weigh station. To contribute or assist in any way, or for more information, email Sarah Nixon or Turner Delano at email@example.com, or go to saltwaterchallenge.org.
The 2012 Derby fishing trip and the resilience of the men and women in uniform battling back from injury were the subjects of “American Heroes Fishing Challenge,” a National Geographic documentary produced by Bob and Sarah Nixon and Todd Wendel that had its television premiere last Memorial Day.
The film features original music by seven-time Grammy winner John Mayer and narration by actor and comedian Lenny Clarke of Chilmark, husband of Menemsha charter boat captain Jennifer Clarke.