Gone fishin’: Derby fishermen’s bonds were forged in combat

For Joe Lopez, an unexpected trip to Martha’s Vineyard was the setting for an extraordinary reunion with a man he had never met.

Retired Army First Sergeant Jon Hill, recipient of the Silver Star, with a pair of blues. – Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby ended last week in a frenzy of activity that would have made it easy to overlook a small group of Island visitors, veterans of combat and in several cases still recovering from grievous wounds suffered in Afghanistan, who from Sunday to Thursday enjoyed fishing and the hospitality extended to them by the Nixon family of Chilmark, and a group of dedicated Island volunteers.

Five years ago on October 3, 2009, Army First Sergeant Jonathan Hill woke up to the sound of gunfire and rocket explosions when up to 400 Taliban attacked 54 U.S. soldiers based in Combat Outpost (COP) Keating set at the bottom of three steep mountains just 14 miles from the Pakistan border. Retired after 21 years in service to his country, last week Jon’s only concern was how to improve his luck after being outfished by retired Marine Joe Roberts, who despite falling over in his wheelchair at least once, kept catching all the fish as guests of veteran Island charter captain Scott McDowell, one of a group of Menemsha captains who donated their time and boats in a community-based effort  known as the the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge.

Now in its sixth year, the fishing respite began when Jack Nixon, then 7, saw a newspaper photo essay about the challenges facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and told his dad, Bob Nixon, a documentary filmmaker, that he wished some veterans could fish the Derby.

Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent, described COP Keating, the men and their battle in his bestselling book,“The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” published by Little, Brown and Company. The daylong battle left eight American soldiers dead and 22 more wounded, making it one of the deadliest military fights in decades.

Mr. Tapper and his wife are friends of Bob and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant. Last 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. It was the start of a new chapter that placed COP Keating at the nucleus of the event.

COP Keating, which was slated to be closed, came under attack from all sides just before 6 am. The attackers quickly overran the base and set fires that burned down most of the barracks. Within the first hour, the defenders had “collapsed their perimeter” to the immediate area around the command post, which became “their final fighting position.”

At the Beach Plum Inn during a break in the fishing, golfing, and eating schedule, Jon Hill spoke about what it meant to serve his country, the Army, the men he served with, and his work as a member of the board of directors of the Defenders of Freedom, a group that assists active and retired military members.

“I’ll tell you, those were some of the best men that the United States Army ever had in one spot, in one fight and I couldn’t be prouder of the guys I served with,” Sergeant Hill said. “The men there fought valiantly, they fought hard and they did some phenomenal things under the worst circumstances.”

Medically retired, Jon, 42, lives in Louisiana with his wife and two children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy, 17. He said what he misses most about the Army is being with young soldiers, watching them grow, mentoring them, “and putting them on a good path to success.”

Jake Tapper called and told him about the Vineyard trip. “I was not going to say no,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime chance for folks like me.”

There was one regret. “I really wished I could bring my family,” he said. “There are a lot of spouses and children that go through a lot of pain while their loved ones are deployed and I think they should get recognized a little more than they do.”

Jon likes to fish and hunt. But most of his time is spent working on behalf of Defenders of Freedom. “The best therapy for me is helping other vets move forward,” he said.

The organization offers a menu of services to help veterans who are making the transition from military to civilian life get back on their feet. “Being in military is like being institutionalized, you get so used to doing things so differently from the civilian world,” he said.

Across the dining room, West Point graduate Captain Rahul Harpalani was having a grand time with his fellow fishermen. Next year he will leave the military and enter Columbia Business School.

Sergeant Hill and Capt. Harpalani met at COP Keating. One month later, on May 15, 2010, Lieutenant Harpalani lost his leg to an IED (improvised explosive device).

“What makes me so proud to know him and say I would follow a guy like that into hell,” Jon said, “is he is a torch-bearing leader. He is an example of the ethos of, I will never quit. He has moved forward, he has rehabilitated himself, and now he is a captain in the Army and when he was injured he was a lieutenant. He is a testament to the fact that you can continue to move forward and continue to do great things and I have a lot of respect for that. He is setting a huge example.”

Jon said he was asleep when the attack occurred. He and the other members of his platoon had no time to don body armor. “It was just chaos outside,” he said. His first concern was getting men and ammo to guard positions.

What Jon never mentioned as we spoke was the Silver Star he received “for exceptional valor in action against an armed enemy.”

The citation states that Sergeant First Class Hill “led and directed his platoon while exposing himself to a heavy barrage of enemy fire. With no regard for his own personal safety, Sergeant First Class Hill organized multiple efforts to recover fallen soldiers under effective, accurate fire.”

The full citation only hints at the drama of the battle and the selfless nature of ordinary men caught in an extraordinary situation.

That day was far from his mind last Tuesday. “I’ve had the best two days I’ve had in a long time, catching fish or not,” Jon Hill told me.

Before he would leave the Vineyard, Jon would also would make a difference in the life of one soldier still grappling with the loss of a brother in arms and create another link in a story now intertwined with the Derby and the Vineyard.

Joseneth (Joe) Lopez, Army specialist 1st Infantry Division, was stationed at COP Keating. Three months prior to the battle, and after 12 months of intermittent fire, Joe’s unit was transferred out. Specialist Nathan Nash, a senior member of the platoon, remained behind a few weeks to help introduce the new men to the surrounding area. The newcomers included Sergeant Hill, who by coincidence had been Nathan’s drill sergeant in basic training.

One of the men newly assigned to COP Keating was Stephen Mace, Joe’s bunk mate and best friend throughout basic training. The two men reconnected briefly at COP Keating. Months later Joe learned his friend was among the battle dead.

Joe, 25, left the military and moved to Orlando to attend school, but the memory of his best friend’s death in a place he had left continued to haunt him. Last fall, Nathan Nash was a member of the group of soldiers that visited the Vineyard. Nathan Nash encouraged Joe to make the Vineyard trip and speak to Jon Hill.

Last week, with Menemsha as a backdrop the two men met for the first time. “We sat down and we spoke and I told him about Mace and he told me he was his platoon sergeant and he told me how he passed away and I finally got closure out of it due to this magical trip,” Joe told me in a phone call Tuesday. “We were able to hug it out and I felt like for a second that Mace was next to me and at that point it was beautiful.”

They spoke about Mace and how great a person he was and how he lives through them. Joe said that he had not been able to stop mourning his lost friends. The Vineyard embrace, the beauty of the environment, “no sense of rush or regular life,” helped soothe his pain.

“A lot of questions were put to rest because of First Sergeant Hill and the way he was able to close those wounds,” Joe said. “It’s crazy. We don’t know each other from nowhere, but somehow the stars align and we all got to talk about it.” On Martha’s Vineyard.

This is my last weekly fishing column of the season. Tight lines.