The sun had just climbed above Squibnocket ridge when Lieut. Nathan Rimpf and Senior Airman Emanuel Thompson spotted their first catch of the day.
“Birds,” Mr. Rimpf and Mr. Thompson said simultaneously with the quiet confidence of pros. With a slight nod of the head, the two surmised that a large school of fish weren’t too far away.
Capt. Buddy Vanderhoop was at the helm of the Tomahawk and had just turned off the engines. Quiet settled over the water for a brief moment before Mr. Thompson’s line began to pull and he reeled in the first bluefish of the day.
“Stay,” Mr. Vanderhoop said as he placed the fish in the hold.
“That was just your warmup,” said Mr. Rimpf as he inched his chair closer to the stern. Shortly after, Mr. Rimpf caught a nice-looking bonito, then again and again, jumping up at a moment’s notice. With more than a year of experience on his prosthetic legs, and several fishing trips in between, Mr. Rimpf handled the rod with ease.
Mr. Rimpf and Mr. Thompson are two of 10 wounded soldiers fishing the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby this week in the American Saltwater Heroes Fishing Challenge. All are recovering from injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan. The weeklong challenge, now in its fifth year, is hosted by the Nixon family, who own the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn and Home Port Restaurant in Chilmark.
The group arrived on Sunday afternoon to a large, welcoming crowd at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. The soldiers were met by Vineyard war veterans, representatives from five Island town emergency personnel, state police and a gaggle of children waving flags and holding welcome banners. Ed Rodgers played America the Beautiful on the trumpet as the first soldiers disembarked the airplane.
It was also a homecoming of sorts for a few soldiers who have participated in the Saltwater Challenge before, including Sgt. Monte Bernado, Staff Sgt. Carla Hockaday and Mr. Rimpf and Mr. Thompson. During his visit to the Island in 2011, Mr. Thompson caught a 34.72-pound derby-leading striper.
Last year Mr. Rimpf was only a few weeks out of the hospital when he visited the Island for the first time. It was the first time he had walked on sand with his new legs. This week, between fishing trips and golf outings, he took time to reflect on his year of recovery.
“I got out of Walter Reed on August 20, 2012, with a lot of questions of how am I going to do this,” Mr. Rimpf said. “Instead of just asking questions and pondering them I just decided to start doing things and figure it out a long the way.
“This year has been full of me discovering new things I’m capable of doing, meeting people that inspire me which come to find out I’m inspiring them.”
Mr. Rimpf, 25, was an exercise major at Eastern Carolina University and a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) before enrolling in the military. He achieved the rank of lieutenant at the age of 24.
Barely two months into his first deployment, he stepped on an improvised explosive device on July 8, 2012 and lost both of his legs. It was termed a clean loss — there were no subsequent infections and no medical decisions about whether the doctors should try to save his legs.
“I was fortunate how it all happened,” he said. “Every blast is completely random.”
He continued: “Nothing else was injured, my head is fine. I was there two months and I don’t have anything in my mind that is an issue. Most of the time I would forget I even went to Afghanistan if I didn’t wake up and put prosthetics on.” The year that followed included physical therapy for 13 months as he trained his body to walk again, even play certain sports. Mr. Rimpf’s mother was his caregiver for the first 11 months and over time he took on more responsibilities until he was able to live on his own. He traveled at least one week a month away from the hospital, which was a time to return to normalcy, he said.
“Getting away from the hospital into the real world, mentally and physically, helps adapt you to a new situation to the point now that sometimes I forget that I’m different, I forget that this happened,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll say out loud, oh my gosh, I don’t have legs.
“I keep my pace up so much that instead of having time to sit around and notice, I prefer to focus on what I have left and what I have been able to do because of this.”
He said he considers himself lucky and believes it all happened for a reason.
“I got lucky I stepped on this bomb and just my legs came off, nothing else,” he said. “My perspective is so skewed from being at Walter Reed. I’ve seen so much worse, I’ve seen much worse with other people . . . I was spared so many mental things about war that the physical ones are, whatever.
“I use the word luck but I know that there’s something else going on here, I believe in God and have faith. It’s easier for me to think somebody else is up there with a plan for me rather than me trying to mess with it.”
Mr. Rimpf is not sensitive to the looks or the comments anymore, and instead walks “with a mountain.”
“I’m young, so people assume I lost them in war so it’s awesome; they say thank you for your sacrifice, and I don’t have to hide them,” he said. “The luckiest part about this is I went back to a country that doesn’t look down upon me for getting wounded and serving; it’s the opposite now.”
Mr. Rimpf is currently taking prerequisite classes so he can apply to business school. He plans to apply the leadership skills he learned in the military to civilian life in the business world. He’s slated to retire from the Army this spring at the age of 26.
For more information on the American Saltwater Heroes Challenge visit saltwaterchallenge.org.