Sunday afternoon was the first time Colton Wiley of Keofauqua, Iowa had ever seen the ocean. Three months ago he was shot in the legs in Afghanistan, leaving the 19 year old wheelchair bound. Now, on a beautiful September evening on Menemsha Beach, he was watching his first sunset over the Atlantic Ocean. “It’s beautiful and completely eye opening,” he said later that night during dinner at the Beach Plum Inn. Mr. Wiley was one of 10 wounded and recovering soldiers who visited the Island this week for the fourth annual American Heroes Saltwater Challenge. The soldiers arrived on Sunday for their week-long stay, complete with daily fishing trips out of Menemsha to compete in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, evening sails and community dinners throughout the week.
The challenge was once again hosted by Sarah and Bob Nixon, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn and Home Port Restaurant. The number of participants in the challenge doubled this year, and Mrs. Nixon said it could not have happened without the help of many Vineyarders.
“[My family and I] are overwhelmed with the spirit of generosity,” she said. “It’s a testament to our amazing community.”
On Sunday the soldiers, many of whom were injured only months ago and were in surgery days before coming to the Vineyard, arrived at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. They were treated to a hero’s welcome, with representatives from police and firefighters from all six towns, Vineyard veterans and a small group of children clad in rubber boots and waders standing on the tarmac to greet them.
The soldiers traveled on six donated chartered plans, which quickly earned the nickname hero planes, from Washington, D.C. The week-long stay was to be a much needed escape from hospital life at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where many of them are still undergoing treatment.
At the welcoming dinner Sunday night at the Beach Plum Inn, Mr. Wiley, who fishes for bass back in Iowa, said he was eager to get out on a boat. Sitting with him was his mother Carrie Wiley and fellow soldier Dylan Waugh, 21, his best friend from the hospital. Mrs. Wiley has been with her son since his accident occurred in July. Mr. Wiley was only in Afghanistan for a week and a half when he was shot in the line of duty. He has two years left on his contract with the army and has every intention of returning to his post once he’s fully recovered. After that, he hopes to go to journalism school.
“The hardest part for them is not coming home with injuries, it’s leaving everyone else behind,” Mrs. Wiley said. Last week, the first package she sent to her son in Afghanistan made its way back to Virginia, after never reaching him.
“I was doing okay until then,” she said.
Mother and son signed up for the Vineyard visit at Fort Belvoir hospital, which sponsors events like the challenge for recovering soldiers. Other visiting soldiers were invited by Mrs. Nixon to come for the wee-klong stay.
On Monday morning, the soldiers gathered at Squid Row in Menemsha for their first round of fishing. Boat assignments were made, pairing charter boat captains Buddy Vanderhoop, Chip Vanderhoop, Lev Wlodyka, Jennifer Clarke, Scott McDowell, Jonathan Boyd, Tom Langman and Charlie Finnerty with soldiers and cameramen. National Geographic is filming a special program about the event to be broadcast sometime around Christmas.
In Mr. Finnerty’s boat the Lucy Ann, Erik Hart, who works in security for the army, and his wife Mari Hart were joined by Supply Sgt. Rose Palmer and her husband Kevin Palmer. National Geographic producer Todd Wendel was also along for the ride.
Mr. Finnerty blasted U2’s Beautiful Day as the boat cruised out of Menemsha harbor leaving a strong wake behind her under a bright blue sky. Mrs. Palmer sat on her husband’s lap,
listening to the other charter captains discuss fishing spots over the radio. Mr. Finnerty stayed quiet as he steered the boat out to Noman’s Land.
Mr. Finnerty dropped anchor just north of Noman’s Land “in a lovely spot which will remain nameless” and began cutting up frozen menhaden and chumming the water with bait.
“Once the fish begins to bite, wait a few moments before reeling it in,” Mr. Finnerty advised his passengers. “Start by reciting the Gettysburg Address,” he added, reciting the first few lines of Abraham Lincoln’s speech.
Mrs. Palmer used to fish with her family on Lake Ontario when she was younger. Back home she caught bass, perch and pike.
“That was pretty interesting but not quite the same as being on the ocean, that’s for sure,” she said. “I’ve never been here before and it’s amazing.”
Mrs. Palmer was stationed in Kandahar for four months as a supply sergeant, going ahead of her company to set up base camp. But the heavy loads of supply wore down her body, specifically her hip. Doctors are still unsure whether they’ll need to repair the lining in her hip socket or if the pain is caused from bone spurs on her femur. Mrs. Palmer will have surgery next month.
With no fish in sight, Mr. Finnerty headed to the south side of Noman’s Land.
“This is the spot my daughter and I caught our big fish when we led the derby,” he said, then paused to thank his passengers for their service.
“It’s a great opportunity to show your appreciation and say thanks,” Mr. Finnerty said. “You guys have put your butts on the line for us.”
More than three hours after the boat left Menemsha, fish began to surface off of Zack’s Cliffs in Aquinnah. Three boats in the area descended on the area like an armada.
“Cast, cast, cast!” Mr. Finnerty shouted. But no luck, not even a nibble, and Lucy Ann returned to the dock empty handed, though none of the soldiers seemed to mind at all.
Wednesday afternoon on Chappaquiddick brought better luck. The warm and overcast afternoon on Cape Pogue was perfect fishing weather, one volunteer said.
“You own this fish,” shouted derby volunteer Amy Coffey, as soldier Simone Washington reeled in her 10th fish. When Ms. Washington arrived on Island she had called herself the “fishing virgin.”
“Can I pass out now?” Ms. Washington asked after wrestling the false albacore to shore and handing it off to Cooper Gilkes to help her drag it onto the sand.
“I’m having a blast,” she said after catching her breath. Ms. Washington has served in Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq. “What’s even more enjoyable than the fishing is the company,” she said.
Describing the first fish she caught, Ms. Washington let out a long sigh of excitement.
“That’s the most exciting thing, to feel that bite there and reel it in. Oh my gosh,” she said.
A few feet away, Sgt. Bernardo (Monte) Fioreamante sat on a beach chair in front of his rod holder.
Mr. Fioreamante was on patrol in Afghanistan on July 4 when he stepped on a bomb, causing him to lose both of his legs and his left arm. He now has two prosthetic legs and a mechanical arm, and when he returns to Fort Belvoir next week, he’ll receive prosthetic knees.
“I decided not to wear my legs today,” he said. “It’s more manageable without them. They’re good for helping to train my muscles, and once I get my knees it will be even more manageable.”
Mr. Fioreamante’s technique included holding the rod from underneath, and within moments of setting up his line he caught a 24-inch false albacore.
“It was relatively easy to catch them once I figured out how to use the pole,” he said.
Mr. Fioreamante caught more than a dozen fish this week, but sitting next to him was the real reason he was happy to be on the Vineyard. He and his girlfriend Amanda Simmons have been together for three years.
“Being here and spending time with that girl over there has been the highlight,” he said.