Nat Geo documentary focuses on wounded soldiers’ Derby embrace

Martha's Vineyard, MA: The heroes of the American Saltwater Challenge. (Photo Credit: Peter Simon/ National Geographic Channels) — Peter Simon/ National Geographic

Last October, less than three months after Army 1st Lt. Nathan Rimpf lost both his legs while patrolling the dry hardscrabble hills and deep valleys of Afghanistan, he was fishing for bluefish and striped bass in the clear blue waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard.

For five days, Lieutenant Rimpf and nine other soldiers wounded in the service of their country enjoyed all the Martha’s Vineyard hospitality that grateful Islanders could offer. They also joined more than 3,000 fishermen competing in the 67th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

The soldiers, all new to the Vineyard and in at least one case, the ocean, likely had little notion of just what they were joining. For the uninitiated, the Derby, as it is known on the Vineyard, may appear to be simply a fishing contest. It is not.

It is a state of mind, a sense of being in which time is measured by tides and the single-minded pursuit of Derby glory dominates. Those who have stood on East Beach casting to breaking blues, or navigated the churning rips off Gay Head in search of a 50-pound striped bass, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the month-long fishing contest, know that.

For these ten soldiers, eight men and two women who ranged in age from 19 to 55, then recuperating at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia and Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, Derby fishing provided the perfect venue to forget, if just for a moment, their current battles far removed from the front lines of war.

That Derby fishing trip and the resilience of the men and women in uniform battling back from injury are the subjects of “American Heroes Fishing Challenge,” a National Geographic documentary produced by Vineyard seasonal residents Bob and Sarah Nixon and Todd Wendel that has its television premiere at 10 pm, Monday, Memorial Day.

On Tuesday night, Senators Mary Landrieu, John McCain, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Lisa Murkowski hosted a premiere at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., attended by the soldiers and several Vineyard charter fishermen.

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.

The documentary introduces viewers to Spc. Dylan Waugh, a soldier who nearly died a few months before the Derby in an IED explosion, gripping a fishing pole; 1st Lt. Army Ranger Nathan Rimpf walking on sand for the first time since losing his legs; and Pvt. Colton Wiley, a young Army infantryman shot through the legs after only two weeks in Afghanistan, seeing the ocean for the first time.

Mr. Rimpf, 24, of North Carolina, lost his legs in Afghanistan last July, but two months later he was onboard famed charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop’s boat, Tomahawk. He describes the experience and its impact on his life.

“I’ve loved to fish my whole life,” he said. “Walking down the dock on my new legs and climbing into that famous fishing boat gave me the profound sense that life could return to normal.”

For Lieutenant Rimpf, every glass is half-full. He speaks in positive terms — a trait that comes from his mother, he told The Times in an interview last fall.

His first reaction when he awoke in Bagram was that he was thankful he had as much of his legs left as he did. He sees a silver lining wherever he looks.

A son’s wish

The soldiers traveled by plane last fall to fish the Vineyard at the invitation of the Nixon family of Chilmark, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant.

The idea for the event, the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge now entering its fifth year, began more than four years ago when Jack Nixon, now 11, saw a newspaper photo essay about the challenges facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and told his dad he wished some veterans could fish the Derby.

Bob and Sarah Nixon picked up his wish and originated the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, a fishing tournament for wounded soldiers. They enlisted the help of the Derby committee, Menemsha charter boat captains, and the community at large. The Island responded.

At a welcome reception dinner the night the soldiers arrived last fall, held on the Beach Plum Inn patio overlooking Menemsha Harbor and Vineyard Sound, Bob Nixon, a documentary filmmaker, summed up the purpose of the event without elaboration: “We want to thank you for your service.”

In a telephone conversation with The Times one day prior to the Senate premiere of the film, the longtime filmmaker and conservationist talked about the challenge of capturing the spirit of the event. The first hurdle was one he never expected in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard while fishing with some of the best captains at the helm — difficulty finding fish.

“It was just brutal,” Mr. Nixon said. “Those captains, they lost a lot of sleep.”

The idea to tell the story began when Mr. Nixon and Howard Owens, president of National Geographic Channel, took a trip in August to Menemsha. Mr. Nixon was working to interest Mr. Owens, a friend and frequent Island summer visitor, in a series on ocean fishing conservation when Mr. Owens suggested Mr. Nixon produce a Memorial Day special about the visiting fishermen.

The suggestion took Mr. Nixon by surprise. The soldiers arrival was just weeks away and it was so close to home, Mr. Nixon said, that he had never thought of it as the subject of a film.

One of the challenges was how to approach the storytelling. The soldiers were told that their trip would be the subject of a documentary, but they were free not to participate. “Some of them asked to be further in the background,” Mr. Nixon said.

Asked about some of the more poignant moments as he edited the film, Mr. Nixon said, “You can’t get away from what these service men and women have given for us. And their spirit is quite remarkable.”

As an example, Mr. Nixon said, Nathan Rimpf expressing happiness that he had as much of his legs left as he did.

“But there are quiet moments when you see that it is still a real battle for them,” Mr. Nixon said. “To watch Monte stepping on sand for the first time in his new legs, there’s a lot there.”

One of the hardest parts was the job of editing, leaving much good material out because there were only 48 minutes to fill, Mr. Nixon said.

“And you hear it over and over again in the film, how grateful these guys are for what we do for them,” Mr. Nixon said, a reaction that had Menemsha charter captain Scott McDowell shaking his head.

“Are you kidding me?,” he said. “I’m just taking these guys fishing. They’re the ones who should be thanked.”