A Fallen Hero

Tre' Ponder was an avid, highly-skilled fisherman and hunter. He was a devoted husband to Leslie; a loving father to Samantha and Elizabeth, ages 7 and 6 respectively; and a cherished only son to Jimmy and Rebecca.

He was the ultimate nice guy in his community, always willing to lend a helping hand. He was a faithful member of the Sunday School class that I teach. Through our shared faith and love of the outdoors, it was inevitable that we would become close friends. Tre' was also a soldier in a top-secret Army special operations unit. On June 28, 2005, while on a rescue mission in Afghanistan, the helicopter he was riding in was shot down in rugged mountainous terrain.

Tre' and 15 fellow soldiers and Navy SEALs gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Early the next morning my wife and I received a call informing us that before Tre' had left for Afghanistan, Leslie had filled out a form naming us as members of the notification team that would come and tell her should he be killed in the line of duty.

Thirty minutes later we met with Tre's unit commander and sergeant-major, our pastor, and two other couples who also were close to the Ponders. We proceeded to undertake the hardest job I've ever had, or ever expect to have. To a military spouse, a knock on the door and the sight of dress uniforms and mournful faces can mean only one terrible thing.

Why am I telling this story in Bassmaster Magazine? The answer is simple, and direct. We live in the greatest country in the world. Ours is a land of freedom and prosperity, where life is good for most, food is plentiful, houses are warm, jobs are available, health care is professional, and leisure activities such as bass fishing can be taken more seriously than perhaps they should.

Many can afford to buy sleek boats, race across big lakes, dig for lures in overflowing tackle boxes, tie them onto pricey tackle, and cast them out to catch fish we're likely going to toss back in — all in the name of sport and challenge.

We can enjoy bass fishing and other embodiments of the good life because of people like Tre' — men and women in the armed forces who keep us free. They serve in the far corners of the earth, sacrificing far more than most people ever know, to keep America secure and strong. This is my personal tribute to Tre' Ponder. I want others to know what he was like, how much he loved his country, and how much he gave up to serve it.

He wasn't an impersonal casualty of war. Instead, he was a husband, a father, a son, a friend, an outdoor partner. He was a man of God and a man of good.

He had a warm smile, a cheerful laugh and a mischievous nature. He is gone now from our presence, but he will remain forever in our memory and hearts. And in recognizing Tre's sacrifice, I also honor all servicemen and women — regulars, Reserves and National Guard — who have put their personal lives on hold to defend America against terrorism. Most will return from their hazardous duty, but some fate-chosen few will not. Despite one's political persuasions, no one can dispute that these men and women are among our nation's best.

Their service is selfless. Their mission is difficult, and their dedication is noble. I salute them all, and I'm sure millions of Americans join me in honoring them. Thank you very much from a grateful nation, and thanks to your families who serve with you. Remembering One Tre' Ponder particularly loved fishing small waters, like ponds and streams.

On many a hot summer afternoon he would leave work and head to a nearby creek that's loaded with bass and redeyes. Sometimes he would cast artificials. Other times he would use live minnows, rigging them on light tackle and drifting them in deep holes and beneath logs. He caught a lot of fish, and he'd usually throw the bass back but keep enough panfish for a family meal. But Tre's real joy came from taking his girls and teaching them how to hook on a minnow, play a fish, and land and hold it without getting finned. He was ever the encourager, always light-hearted.

He never pressured his daughters. Instead, he focused strictly on the fun of being outdoors. And that's why they were always eager to go with him. Last spring, Tre' took me turkey hunting. Now, I am a serious turkey hunter; I've bagged dozens of gobblers over the years.

Almost always when I go turkey hunting, I take a friend or a friend's child to share the hunt. But when Tre' telephoned and invited me, he said, "You're always taking other people. Come and hunt with me. I'll call and you shoot." And so we did. We got into birds early, and our hunt continued into late morning. Finally Tre' got a nice gobbler to come, and I shot him.

Tre' beamed from ear to ear at our success. It was one of the most enjoyable hunts I've ever been on. Tre' loved to hunt quail; he kept two bird dogs. He liked camping. When our Sunday School class had a campout, his family's fire circle was the center of activity. He was a crack dove shot, though he rarely got a limit. This was because his shotgun was usually leaning against a hay bale or fence post as he helped one of his girls pop away with a diminutive .410.

I didn't know much about Tre's work at nearby Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. I knew he was in special ops and that he would disappear for a few days or a few weeks, then he would just show up again. He'd always say that he'd "been on a little adventure." I knew I could look back at the most recent world crisis and know where he'd been.

The last time I saw him was at Sunday School, and he told me he'd be gone for awhile. I could guess he was headed to Afghanistan or Iraq. I shook hands with him and said, "You take care of yourself." (In retrospect that seems far too glib, too inadequate, but what do you say to a soldier who's going off to war? Now, I wish I'd told him I loved him.) He smiled his typical Tre' smile and answered, "I will. See ya." And then he was gone.

At Tre's funeral, I got a glimpse of his unit and the closeness of its members. I saw their devastation at losing a friend and their banding together to support Leslie. I saw their professionalism and their patriotism. I saw their commitment. It made me even prouder of Tre', knowing that he was a part of all this. And in the pit of my stomach, it made me envious that I was not. What makes life worthwhile? Family. Friends. Love. Honor. Giving. Dignity. Humility. Respect. Making the world a better place. Standing up for what's right. Tre' Ponder had and did all these things, and he departed this world wealthy in what really counts.

His life was shorter than it should have been, and he leaves behind a grieving family and circle of friends who miss his warm presence. But he lived life on his own terms and to a very high standard. He made the most of the years and the opportunities he was afforded. So, as we continue living our lives and enjoying the benefits of being Americans, let's remember Tre' Ponder and all other servicemen and women who serve with valor.

The next time we're on the water, ready to head out for another day of fishing, let's pause in silent and reverent thanks for what they do and what they stand for. Freedom comes at a costly and sometimes horrific price, but Tre' and others like him stand willing to pay it.

May God hold them forever in His loving arms. (Contributions to the Ponder Family Educational Fund may be sent to: U. S. Bank, 1816 Madison Street, Clarksville, TN 37043.) BASS Memorials
If you have lost a friend or loved one in the war against terror and would like to share a memory, please e-mail editorial@bassmaster.com. We will publish the memorials on www.bassmaster.com.

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