SITKA — Often overlooked in conflicts that occur thousands of miles away on continents most people see just on social media, are the military veterans who return to their non-service lives with traumas both visible and unseen.
A local fishing charter business, working with a veteran support organization called Freedom Alliance, has been reaching out to these veterans over the past several years, giving them a taste of all that Alaska has to offer.
“It’s something that can’t be measured by the size of fish caught,” said Vonnie Grun of Vonnie’s Charters at Halibut Point Lodge. “To see their smiles … well, it isn’t about us, it’s about saying thank you to them.”
On May 25, 14 military veterans arrived in Sitka, greeted by ocean waters rolling up beside the airport runway, a volcano painted in cloudless sky, and a palette of colors dashed about the surrounding mountains.
The wounded warriors were different in appearance, but they shared experiences and desires — they served the country, they have left some part of themselves far from home, and they want to feel that they’re not forgotten.
“Wow,” John Avak said, looking around. “This is amazing. That was an incredible flight.”
Avak was born and raised in Connecticut, lived the past 20 years in Las Vegas, and now resides in Seattle with his three kids and two step-kids.
“They’re all under 14 years old,” he said. “Now that’s a tough tour of duty.”
One son is currently recovering from brain cancer, just another trial for Avak, a 12-year Marine who served three tours in Iraq.
He said he was looking forward to whatever he might find on this trip to the coast of Southeast Alaska.
“Anything,” he said. “I’m happy if I catch a flounder or a rockfish. Of course I would love a salmon or a silver. Anything that has gills, something I can tell my son about when I get home.”
When it was noted that the sunny weather was similar to that of foreign lands where he proudly sacrificed his time, he laughed.
“Yes, but better personalities here,” he said. “I can promise you that.”
Rory Atridge served in the Army, deployed to Bosnia and Iraq and “all over the place.”
He’s hoping to catch a king salmon.
“And some halibut,” he said. “Maybe some beers with some like-minded individuals.”
Like most of the others, this is his first trip to Sitka, but he’s been to Deadhorse, Juneau and Admiralty Island doing some work for the mining industry.
“I hope to meet some new friends,” he said. “Build some relationships, tell dirty jokes, all those kind of things that the average person won’t understand.”
Cody Butcher, from Idaho, served in the Army with tours in Afghanistan.
He likes to hunt back home, to just get out in the mountains.
“I would love to bag a few fish, see the wildlife, whatever. This is my first time in Alaska,” he said. “This is it. I’m excited. I’m kind of a blank canvas. I don’t know what to expect.”
Quinn Jensen, from Utah, served two tours in Afghanistan. On one he left a portion of his body and now walks with a prosthetic. He’s nearly six feet tall, but his smile is larger, his eyes bright with curiosity, his handshake one a lifelong friend gives to another.
“Just being here, I don’t know, I have never been to Alaska before,” Jensen said. “It’s kind of cool to see it all in person. For sure it would be nice to catch a fish, all kinds of fish hopefully. See a whale ….”
In a wheelchair, Marcus Fischer is aided by his fishing partner, his wife Brandi.
Many of the wounded warriors have brought friends or significant others with them.
“Fish,” Fischer said. “Fish a lot, I hope. But my wife has more luck.”
After his two tours of duty in Iraq and injuries, their marriage might seem to be in the latter part of the “for better or worse” vow. But their love is evident as she kisses the top of his head and rolls him out into the Alaska sunlight.
Five years ago Ryan Behm took the natural progression from being a military medic to taking care of the veterans he accompanies on Freedom Alliance sojourns.
“For me it’s mostly about getting the vets not only connected with one another, not only showing them that we appreciate what they did, but to get them outside of a comfort zone as a learning and growing experience,” he said. “To get them to see that they can do something that maybe they think they couldn’t. But it’s also about getting guys together who have been through different, or similar, experiences and having guys that have been through certain things mentor other guys.”
The current 14 were out in the Sitka waters for the past three days.
They returned each day, some with a harvest and some without, but all wearing the expressions of “It’s called fishing, not catching” and “A bad day fishing is better than a good day working.”
Some caught bigger fish than others. They’ve cooked up Atridge’s halibut and Jensen’s salmon, shared a beer on the lodge deck. They’ve closed their eyes on the ocean as the swells gently rocked them.
“It’s interesting how different people are, but so much is the same,” Behm said. “A lot of the struggles are the same. A lot of times the names change but the stories are the same. Hopefully, we can get guys to have hope that they can see anything is possible.”
And for Marcus Fischer … he caught the biggest king salmon of the week.
“I’ve caught a big salmon before,” he said. “But only in the store.”