Purple Heart veterans catching more than fish in Ashtabula excursion

Brian Albrecht

Eight veterans who were awarded Purple Hearts during their military service will go fishing for more than Lake Erie walleye in an Aug. 1-4 excursion from Ashtabula.

They'll be trolling for some common ground, casting for a little camaraderie, and angling, perhaps for a little peace and healing.

The fishing trip is one of about 50 outdoor expeditions in 35 states sponsored this year by a national nonprofit group, the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation (WWIA), for Purple Heart veterans. These outings, serving about 200 vets, include outdoor trips for fishing and hunting everything from waterfowl and bears to alligators.

The Ashtabula event will not only include two days of fishing on Lake Erie, but also a motorcycle-escorted "hero's tour" of the city, an American Legion steak dinner, and a celebratory fish fry.

The six guest veterans come from across Ohio and outside the state, and will be joined on fishing boats by two WWIA volunteers, or associates, who also are Purple Heart vets, according to local associate Larry Fielder, 59, of Euclid.

The WWIA covers all of the expenses, including transportation, of the invited veterans, said Fielder, who is not a veteran but wanted to get involved in WWIA efforts so he could repay the "sacrifices other people have made for our freedom."

He recalled that during last year's fishing weekend, two of the invited guests, Vietnam veterans, were particularly touched by the parade/tour around Ashtabula. "As we went over the lift bridge, one looked at the other and said, 'This is the welcome home we never got'," Fielder said.

So the weekend is more than just pomp and perch. "What they'll really get is a thank-you, and they'll leave knowing that somebody does care," Fielder said.

That was part of the goal in 2007 when 20-year Army veteran John McDaniel created the WWIA (not to be confused with the similar-sounding Wounded Warrior Project).

"I have a soft spot in my heart for those who actually bleed for their country," said McDaniel, who is not a Purple Heart recipient, from WWIA headquarters in Apollo Beach, Fla.

"We're connecting them to people who share similar challenges and experiences, in peer-to-peer contact," he added. "We're saying thanks for what you did, and there's something very magical that happens.

"One hundred percent of these guys, like it or not, have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They just want to feel like what they did is appreciated, and this is our way of doing that."

Eventually McDaniel hopes to establish four regional centers offering WWIA outdoor excursions in a variety of locales.

The number of veterans on these excursions is intentionally kept small, usually less than 10 vets, according to McDaniel. "If it gets too big it becomes a circus," he said. "We want to keep it very small, intimate and manageable so we won't neglect somebody who might need some extra attention (due to disabilities)."

The response from wounded vets is "essentially always the same. They're humbled, they're grateful and thankful and appreciative," McDaniel said. "At heart we're all hunters and gatherers, and we're just kind-of returning to nature. I know there's a huge amount of healing power in that open space."

One of the Purple Heart veterans making his first WWIA excursion on the Ashtabula fishing trip is Edwin Apgar, 63, of Struthers, Ohio, whose 18 years in the service include terms with the Marines, Air Force and Ohio National Guard.

In 2004, while deployed with the Guard to Iraq, he was hit by shrapnel in the neck when his truck convoy was ambushed.

Apgar is looking forward to the Ashtabula excursion. "Absolutely, for one thing because I like my fishing, and for another thing it will give me a chance to hang out with other veterans and swap some stories," he said.

"I feel honored they chose me to go out with them this time," he added. "But I didn't join them to take advantage of what they have to offer. I joined on because it sounded like something I could do, somewhere along the line, to give a helping hand to other veterans.

"All the camaraderie and such that goes on, it seems like it's a pretty good thing."

Apgar said that what he hopes to get from the experience is some good walleye, and "some good companionship with fellow veterans. To me, that's what it's all about. Veterans taking care of veterans."

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