'Oh Beautiful'

Elite Series Angler: Kevin VanDam

About the author

Don Barone

Don Barone

db has been in the reporting biz for over 30 years, won some Emmys and other awards, but is proudest of his four-decade marriage, his two kids and the fact he founded Tackle The Storm Foundation to help children.


"... for heroes proved... "

Dateline: America

The sun was low.

The flag was high.

Red.

White.

Blue.

I'm thankful for my mirrored Costas. Their tight fit. The fact you can't see my eyes.

As the National Anthem played on, "Oh, say can you see?" this is what I saw: the wounded behind the flag.

Twelve young men. Busted up.

Legs gone.

Young minds, bent and broke.

They stood tall, with hands over hearts. And my heart broke.

For them.

For those who came before them.

For those there now.

For those who will be there.

Twelve of our wounded, with the horrors still fresh, came here this morning to fish with 12 of the best anglers in the world. The 12 vying to be the Angler of the Year.

And when the song in the speakers came to this — "home of the" — I knew I was standing amongst the bravest.

I could see them.

I could touch them.

I could thank them.

While the anthem played on.

While the bass boats moved with the waves.

And I could ask them for forgiveness.

While the anthem played on.

Because I took their legs.

Because I broke their minds.

While the anthem played on.

Because I want to be free.

Because I want you to be free.

While the anthem played on.

Freedom wounds us all.

If you are alive, breathing, and can think, all you need to do is to look into the face of a warrior, wounded or not, active or not, and while the flag is high, and the sun is low, and the anthem plays, you will see in the eyes of those who were there this:

Freedom hurts.

The shores of long ago, still hurt.

The jungles of your older brothers and sisters, still hurt.

And for those with the sand still under their nails, there is still hurt.

The pain goes away, the hurt never ebbs.

And the anthem played on.

Look around while the song plays, and you will see those who were there, and instead of using your hands to clap, do this, reach out to them and shake their hand, and say this:

"Thank you."

Simple, quick, eloquent.

And I will do this. I will tell you where, today, you can spot the Angler of the Year.

He's in the back of the boat.

He's the one without any legs.

He's the one busted up inside.

But the moment he made his first cast, with what all he's been through, he became my Angler of the Year.

And the trophy he holds in his hands is called freedom.

"...in liberating strife..."

He glimmered as he walked.

Jake Keeslar, Army, Sgt. 1st Class. Alpha Company 4/14 Calvary. He stood and fished out of KVD's boat. KVD in his black shorts, Jake in his fake legs.

Both of them. Legs.

For Jake, and all those like him, we need to add another color to the flag titanium. For the men and women now framed in steel, we need to line the flag in the same metal.

And this is why. Here's my conversation with the man perched on titanium.

"So what do you do now?"

"Active duty, Sir."

"You're still in the military," I say while looking down at his legs like the idiot I am.

"Yes, Sir. San Diego in the Warrior Transition Unit."

Jake's story:

"I was patrolling in my Stryker Vehicle when it ran over an IED."

And then he is silent. The pain, probably gone, the hurt —

"I lost both my legs, Sir, one above the knee, one below."

The device that took Jake's legs was what's called, out there, a buried Triple Stack 155. That's a homemade contraption of three 155mm artillery shells rigged to all go off at the same time when a vehicle runs over it.

That will take out your house, so legs are no problem.

Jake spent 18 months in Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Then, then, he went back to active duty.

And became my Angler of the Year.

"...who more than self... "

In the fishing aisle of the Prattville, Ala., Bass Pro stands a man and his dog.

Sgt. Ryan Anderson and Rivka.

Elite Pro, and one of the guys chasing the Angler of the Year trophy, Tommy Biffle is helping him pick out baits, line, and other tackle stuff.

Ryan walks slowly down the aisle behind Tommy, and every now and then, stops to lean on his friend.

Rivka.

"She helps me a lot, we have this harness thing on her like a seeing eye dog wears, and since I lost my balance, my equilibrium, I sometimes lean on her for support. Unfortunately I have to take it a little easy today because I packed the device in my baggage and the airlines lost my luggage."

And then Ryan leans up against a fishing display end cap and says, "I don't have a sense of balance anymore, have some issues with traumatic brain injury."

As I'm petting Rivka I ask from what, and when he answered I had to lean against the opposite end cap myself.

From Ryan: "I was with the 9th Engineer Support Battalion. My job was to go out and find and disarm IED's. We found over a hundred of them and took care of them, but during my tour, seven found me."

And he bent down, slowly, and petted Rivka.

Ryan, doing his job for me, for you, for us, was BLOWN UP SEVEN TIMES.

"One day in Iraq I was blown up three separate times. I was starting to run out of lives."

The Sergeant is 26 years old, and he told me, "My buddies over there stopped hanging around me, said I should have been dead seven times now, started to make them nervous."

All I have in my hand is a cocktail napkin, it won't be enough, won't absorb enough.

"On September 29th, I was blown up twice."

I'm looking for a napkin.

"On 30 September I was blown up three times."

I excuse myself saying I was going to get some sweet tea from the luncheon line, but I went into the men's room, locked the door, held onto the sink, splashed water on my face, and just looked into the mirror.

Took a deep breath, wrote this down in my notebook:

For the Sept 29th incident when Ryan was blown up twice they checked him out at the base hospital to see, quote, "if anything was rattling around up there."

For the 30-September incident Sgt. Ryan said he spent 10 days hospitalized.

Dried off all the water on my face, picked up a cup of sweet tea, and sat back down to finish the interview.

"On the 4th of November when I got blown up twice that day, they said that was enough. I was in a HUSKY and the last IED blew all the wheels off of it, bent the frame and cracked the engine block."

What in the world do you say to that. I'm complaining because it's hot outside, and this young man has dynamite going off under his ass on a regular basis.

I am the child.

Sgt. Ryan is the man.

A Marine Reservist from New Jersey, who before all of this was a correctional officer in Indiana. Married for five years now to Elizabeth, he is the father to three young children, two girls and a boy.

And Elizabeth is pregnant with twins due in December — a boy and a girl.

Been in the military seven years now. And still is.

On active duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in the Wounded Warrior Battalion.

And then he tells me this, "Sir, would you please put down that I have been in the Wounded Warrior Battalion for almost two years now, and that hopefully I will leave it soon and get back to active duty in the Marines and go back to my company. Will you write that down."

I said I would.

I did.

And then once again, I had to excuse myself.

"...our country loved..."

These 12 wounded warriors and these 12 Angler of the Year competitors were brought together by an organization called Hope For The Warriors. They handed me a red folder with a whole bunch of stuff inside, PR stuff. I didn't read it. Never do. PR stuff.

I stood on the dock, and watched.

Watched KVD talk with and fish with the man with no legs.

Watched Tommy Biffle catch the tourney-winning fish, an eight-pound, three-ounce beast about 45 seconds after Trip Weldon said go.

Watched Biffle's rod snap in half as he landed the fish, and later over BBQ, listened as Tommy told me, "db, I'm going to sign and give Ryan the rod I snapped, and then (he starts quietly talking) and I got a new one in the boat that I'm going to give him, too."

I didn't ask any of the anglers what they got out of this, because regardless of what they say in soundbites now, trust me, they don't know what they got out of it.

Because, they were wounded, too.

Because, you were wounded, too.

Because, I was wounded, too.

None of the anglers will get what this day was about until they wake up, and their pillow is wet.

From dreams of the man with no legs.

From dreams of the man who was blown up seven times, and still wants back.

And the anthem plays on.

For my Anglers of the Year. The warriors in the back of the boat.

And for those still stuck in the sand.

 


"...with brotherhood..."

America the Beautiful
Ray Charles

 

— db

 

 

Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.

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