Last Sunday night the dining room at the Beach Plum Inn in Chilmark was nearly full, and scattered among the Islanders were six members of the United States military and their families. The eighth annual American Heroes Saltwater Challenge was once again introducing servicemen to some of the traditions of Martha’s Vineyard, including the Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby. This event, hosted by the Nixon family, organized with an army of volunteers, and sustained by a stream of donations, was the kickoff to four days of relaxed activity for a select group of servicemen who have been wounded in the line of duty and their families.
Four tours, an RPG, and a hit-and-run
The poor weather was already complicating the Challenge logistics, starting with simply getting people onto the Island. Amber Heffron, the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Heffron, said that their plane had “come in sideways” to the county airport, making their children a little nervous. All was forgotten, however, when upon landing they rolled under twin arcs of water jets roaring out of fire hoses. Island firefighters and police turned out in force to greet the arriving American heroes.
The Heffrons and their four children were chauffeured to Evelyn’s House, a part of the adjacent Menemsha Inn & Cottages, where they were told that the wind and rough seas might cause the next morning’s fishing to be scratched. Delighted by the comfort and quiet of their new surroundings, Amber said, “You could leave us right here and that would be fine.”
About an hour into the evening’s festivities, an impressively loud whistle stilled the hubbub in the room, and Saltwater Challenge co-founder Sarah Nixon stood up to welcome the visiting heroes. Nixon told the more than 60 people gathered that her husband Bob and their son had not been able to get onto the Island, as the ferries had been canceled due to high winds.
Quite up to the task of carrying on solo, Nixon introduced Heffron, Thomas Eidschun, Anthony Cumpian, Thomas Elliott, John Boettcher, and Joseph Roberts to the assemblage, briefly retold the story of the origin of the event, and went over the schedule for the next four days.
In 2008, Nixon’s then 7-year-old son Jack experienced the exultation of doing well in the Derby and, channeling the wisdom of 17th century fishing doyen Izaak Walton — ”God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling” — suggested that some time with a rod and reel would be restorative for wounded servicemen.
Ben Heffron, 36, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and had never been deep-sea fishing. He’d had the chance once when he was stationed in Hawaii, but the outing had been canceled due to bad weather. You don’t think of Hawaii as having bad weather, he said, but it does.
Heffron has been in the Army for 13 years and has done four tours of duty — two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan — and is now assigned to the Pentagon, where he works in the Army Operations Center, which tracks operations around the world. He and his family live on Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia. Amber heard about the Saltwater Challenge through the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a Washington-based charity that helps servicemen and -women who have been injured in the line of duty and are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Army Sgt. Anthony Cumpian was still a little surprised to find himself in Martha’s Vineyard. The Anaheim, Calif., native is stationed in Colorado, and was a fairly last-minute member of the 2016 Saltwater Challenge group. As Nixon told the assembled crowd, he had been referred to her by Sgt. Thomas “Raz” Rasmussen, one of the veterans of the Combat Outpost Keating attack in 2009, who was a Vineyard visitor two years ago.
“My buddy volunteered me,” said Cumpian. “He said I’d be perfect for this. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because we both got Purple Hearts.”
Cumpian has done one tour in Afghanistan, and said that he did not wish to return. “Some dude fired on me and another guy,” said the sergeant, “but he missed.” The explosion tore a piece out of Cumpian’s upper arm.
Army Specialist John Boettcher chuckled as he said that Cumpian had never heard of Martha’s Vineyard and had had to look it up online to find out what and where it was. Boettcher, who made the trip with his girlfriend Jackie Bissell, had never been to the Island either, but his parents had. He has been living at Walter Reed since April, recovering from a hit-and-run accident on a base outside Anchorage, Alaska.
Boettcher, who comes from military family several generations deep, is the son of two Air Force veterans. When his mother stopped working at the college where he had been enrolled for three years, continuing his education would have been an expensive proposition. He had always intended to enlist, and decided that the time was right. That was two and a half years ago; he entered the Army as a private (PV2), and had been promoted each year.
On April 2 he was walking along a median beside a base road when he was struck by a truck that did not stop. His survival was likely due to a combination of luck, youth, and excellent physical condition; he had been working out twice a day, six days a week. Nonetheless, his injuries were extensive, and have required several reconstructive surgeries. He now has eight plates in his face and another one in his lower left arm. His leg was also badly injured; he still has “drop foot,” and he faces a few more surgeries.
Bissell and Boettcher were high-school sweethearts, and now she is his NMA (non-medical attendant) during his recovery. She had been living in their hometown of Allentown, Pa., but had moved to Maryland to take care of him. “I’m on military orders,” she said, still a little surprised to have been drafted into service, but clearly pleased to be given the responsibility of helping John through his recovery.
A jumper ‘going absent’
By the next day the winds had subsided and the sun was out. The Nixons had arranged for their guests to receive instruction in the art of surfcasting from Coop Gilkes and Janet Messineo. The lessons took place not on a beach but at the driving range of the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown. Gilkes and Messineo shuttled among their initially lurching and eventually graceful student anglers, gently honing their skills with tips and encouragement.
Tom and Michelle Eidschun had fallen into an easygoing and apparently familiar competition with slightly disparate goals. Gilkes and Messineo had placed four large gray plastic bins out on the range, targets for the new surfcasters to drop their dummy lures into. Tom, a paratrooper in special operations, was doing his best to put his lure into one of the boxes, which were about 75 yards out. Michelle was just trying to cast farther than her husband, and intermittently she was succeeding. Her husband was simply enjoying himself. “I’m determined to catch that dang box,” he said. “You can just put a box out in a field and I’m happy.”
Staff Sgt. Tom Eidschun, 54, has been in the Army 26 years, deployed for 52 missions in 27 countries, and has 180 official jumps. “Eighty percent injured is still acceptable on an airborne mission,” said Michelle. “Three out of five times they are going to get their bell rung.”
A couple of years ago Eidschun began having dizzy spells and “going absent.” “Driving,” he said, “was definitely out, because it comes out of nowhere.”
“It looked like he was having a stroke,” said Michelle, “because his speech was slurred. Then we thought it was Parkinson’s.” She had been used to walking 10 steps behind her husband, trying to keep up. Now she was outpacing him. He was experiencing short-term memory loss, and he stopped being able to speak.
They were stationed on Oahu when Michelle noticed her husband’s symptoms. Although Tom’s condition resembled the well-publicized problems of many NFL players, when faced with the loss of control over their bodies, special operations soldiers react quite differently from football players. On the gridiron you must be openly aggressive, not a desired trait in special ops personnel. When Michelle canvassed her husband’s peers, she found he wasn’t alone. “They start to withdraw and get more quiet,” said Michelle. “It took me two years to notice that he just wasn’t getting angry about what he used to get angry about.”
She likes the way one of the psychologists described men like her husband. “He said he has an ‘unattainable expectation of human frailty,’” Michelle said. “He has a standard that is basically, ‘If you fall short, then you’ve failed.’ That’s a great thing in a sergeant major …”
But most of the time, Michelle did not like what she was hearing from the doctors. The Army physicians were telling her that her increasingly silent husband was simply stoic, but she knew that he was not. When their 21-year-old daughter visited, Tom did not take up his customary battle with her about drinking orange juice straight from the carton. She could see that he had stopped reacting to what was going on around him.
Eidschun was unable to stand up for himself in doctors’ examinations, and Michelle stepped into the fray as his advocate. “They were saying he was a malingerer,” she said. “After 26 years and having achieved the highest rank you can achieve, why would he suddenly become a malingerer?” Distrusting the physicians’ evaluations of Tom’s condition, she began to pull medical records to see if they were accurate.
After five months of wrangling with Army bureaucracy, during which time they were transferred to Fort Bragg in California, Michelle Eidschun managed to get her husband into Walter Reed. There she continued to encounter difficulties with military physicians who attributed Tom’s symptoms to anxiety, but she also found a sympathetic psychologist, who told her, “If anyone sees anxiety in your husband, then they’re causing it.”
After the Eidschuns had mastered their respective surfcasting techniques, they were mostly content to watch their 16-year-old daughter Althea perfect her golf swing, which she did with rapidity that startled the VGC pro. As she watched her daughter follow through with ever-greater fluidity, she laughed and told her, since she wanted to become an attorney, it was a good thing that she was apparently a natural at golf.
Michelle and Tom had their own follow-through to do. Her husband’s traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have given him catastrophic trauma encephalopathy (CTE), which is not recognized by the military as an ailment because they have no test of it. Instead he has been diagnosed as having migraine syndrome. Michelle’s advocacy led her to a general, who made sure that her husband was admitted to a NICoE (National Intrepid Centers of Excellence) adjacent to the Walter Reed campus in Bethesda, Md. Eidschun will spend two or three weeks there and depart with a personalized treatment plan.
A break from their own challenges
Saltwater Challenge founders Sarah, Bob, and Jack Nixon were all on hand at the driving range to watch their guests cast and swing in the sun. At one point Sarah sat holding the Heffrons’ 6-month-old son Ezri while his parents practiced. Teenage Jack helped retrieve errant lures from the trees alongside the range. Bob moved through the crowd making everyone feel at home, or stood with his arms crossed, watching golf balls disappear over the distant flags. He could see that his mission here had been accomplished, at least for now; everyone was relaxed and having a good time, taking a break from their own challenges. And the next day they would go fishing.