Last fall a group of ten soldiers arrived in Menemsha to compete in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. The soldiers had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and had traveled to the Island from Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where they were recovering. The group came for respite, to breathe in the sea air and have a moment of normalcy.
“We like to think of it as an experiment in extreme saltwater therapy,” Bob Nixon said this week. Mr. Nixon and his wife Sarah have hosted the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge for the past four years. “This was a soldier’s first experience outside of the hospital and the family’s chance to be back in the real world and see what their new normal is like.”
This past fall Mr. Nixon, a documentary filmmaker, turned the camera on the five-day retreat. The documentary, called American Heroes Fishing Challenge, airs Monday, May 27, at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic channel.
The film is produced by Mr. Nixon, Mrs. Nixon and fellow summer visitor Todd Wendel. It was directed by Mr. Nixon and narrated by comedian, actor and Vineyarder Lenny Clarke.
The film follows the group of soldiers as they compete in the annual fishing derby in and around Vineyard waters. Several of the soldiers are wheelchair bound due to amputations, while others have new prosthetic limbs. A group of Island charter captains including Jennifer Clarke, Buddy Vanderhoop, Scott McDowell, Jonathan Boyd, Jennifer Clarke, Lev Wlodyka, Charlie Finnerty, Tom Langman and Alex Friedman donated their time to take the soldiers fishing and show them the secrets of hooking the big one.
“It was great to capture some of these characters,” Mr. Nixon said.
The annual event began as an idea over the Nixons’ kitchen table. Bob and Sarah’s son Jack, age seven at the time, saw a newspaper article about wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and thought that taking them fishing would help in their recovery. Since then the Nixons have hosted groups of soldiers and their families at the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha. The Nixons own the inn and it becomes a home base for everyone as they participate in the Island-wide fishing tournament.
“It’s this little idea that keeps on growing,” Mr. Nixon said.
Mr. Nixon said he never set out to make a film about the annual event until he was approached by National Geographic Channels president and longtime summer visitor Howard Owens just two weeks before the soldiers were due to arrive last August.
“That was the first challenge,” Mr. Nixon said. The next was getting the troops to agree to being a part of the film.
“It’s tricky with these guys,” he said. “We had to figure out how to respect their privacy and their space and get a great film and not derail what’s been so great about . . . this Island initiative.”
All of the soldiers said yes, at first.
“But that was in the hospital, with Sarah and me showing up at Bethesda Naval in the rehab ward,” Mr. Nixon said. “[Then on the Vineyard] suddenly it’s cameras in the face, helicopter overhead. It was challenging for them.”
Some soldiers opted out of being in the final cut, while others had a change of heart and asked to be included.
“The main reason some of these soldiers said okay, I’m going to work with you, is because this might help another soldier,” Mr. Nixon said. “That’s the bigger picture and what I’m really hopeful about. Even if it’s just one person. The suicide rate [for returning soldiers] is skyrocketing . . . these guys show that you make it through.”
The Nixons are now organizing the fifth challenge, scheduled for late September, with plans to continue the program for years to come.
“Even after this war is over there’s going to be a lot of folks who can still use that saltwater therapy and the challenge, so I think we’ll keep going,” he said. “It’s still really tough over there; this is going to take years to work through.”
Mr. Owens, president of National Geographic Channels, said he was attracted to telling the soldiers’ stories of their time on the Vineyard for a Memorial Day special.
“We thought this could make a stirring holiday special film,” Mr. Owens said in a phone interview with the Gazette. “And for a great cause, which was the most important and intriguing thing about this. We can use our TV platform at National Geographic Channels and use our pulpit to help inspire and tell these incredible stories.”
The goal was to stay far away from politics, Mr. Owens added, and highlight the soldiers’ road to recovery through the derby challenge.
“The idea . . . was to make a film about hope and heroism and to shine a light on these incredible inspiring veterans and then let the discourse follow as it may,” he said. “They really show traits that make us all proud to live in this country and have these people represent us.”
Nearly all of the soldiers filmed in the documentary attended a premiere at the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday night. The event was hosted by Senators John McCain, Mary Landrieu, Lisa Merkowski and Sheldon Whitehouse. On Wednesday, Mrs. Nixon reported that the 300-seat theatre under the dome of the capitol was standing room only.
Mrs. Nixon said the film reinforced the importance of the challenge.
“As Lenny Clarke says in the film, it’s just a simple gesture for a debt that can never be repaid,” she said. “I said to Jack . . . you gave all of us an opportunity to do something good for others.”
On Tuesday night in Menemsha, a group of derby volunteers and town leaders attended a private screening of the film at the Home Port Restaurant, which the Nixons also own. In lieu of a large screen in the Capitol dome, viewers watched the movie projected on a white sheet that hung in the corner of the main dining room. Charter fisherman Scott McDowell, who chartered a boat for the derby challenge, said he looked forward to volunteering his boat the Lauren C for another challenge.
“Let’s hope we get to do this again next year,” he said. “More important, let’s hope we don’t have to bring home many more of those kids.”
For more information on the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, visit saltwaterchallenge.org. An outdoor screening of the film is planned for sometime this summer on the Vineyard. For additional photos of the filming and premieres in both Menemsha and Washington, D.C., see our gallery National Geographic Shines Spotlight on Wounded Soldiers' Saltwater Therapy.