United States Army Major (ret.) Joey Hutto is sitting in a low beach chair on East Beach, his blue jean cuffs rolled up and his bare feet buried in the warm Chappaquiddick sand. His wife Michelle is beside him in another chair, her toes buried, too.

A 10-foot surf rod sits in a rod holder spiked into the sand, just a few feet away. At the end of the line, a piece of squid rests below the frothy waves, weighted down by a pyramid shaped piece of lead. Similar rigs are set up all the way down the beach in front of a row of four wheel drive vehicles.

Nothing much is happening. The falling tide is wrong, the cold onshore wind is wrong. No one is catching any fish, much less a trophy worthy of weighing in at the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

Yet the smile on Major Hutto’s face will just not quit.

He is one of seven service veterans who, along with their families, came to the Island this week to participate in the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge. The program began 10 years ago, founded by the Nixon family, who own the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn and Home Port Restaurant in Chilmark. It’s a way to help veterans wounded in battle get a little respite from their personal travails, and for Vineyard residents to thank them for their military service.

Cpl. Michael Mack, Marine Corps, with son Aiden and daughter Illithyia. Janet Messineo (right) helps out. — Jeanna Shepard

Dozens of merchants provide everything for a memorable Vineyard vacation, from charter excursions to gourmet meals, to lodging.

Major Hutto, from Wetumpka, Ala., spent 22 years in the Army, more than eight of those years in combat. He said this week has helped the long process of healing wounds.

“When you’re first told about it, it’s kind of unbelievable,” said Major Hutto. “You don’t really think, I’m really getting to do this. Then you actually start feeling sad for a little while because you’re scared you’re going to take it from another person that might need it. But it’s very relaxing to get in an environment with some of the veterans and their families. We have that common connection, we always will. We’ve actually met a lot of veterans on the Island, that we’ve gotten to speak with, and that’s been very nice. We heard that this was a community, but to actually come here and see it, it’s amazing. We’re very grateful. We would love to bring our kids back.”

Major Hutto is not the only veteran on the beach who is beaming a broad smile.

Marine Corps Corporal Michael Mack of Auburn, Wash., is watching his two children shriek and laugh as they stand in the surf casting into the waves. He did three deployments in Iraq.

Derby committee member Janet Messineo is showing the children how to handle the rod and reel, while keeping a careful hand on them to make sure they don’t tumble down the steep beach.

Army Staff Sgt. Chris Gottschling stirs it up along the shoreline. — Jeanna Shepard

“It’s giving them a minute, to let people know they care,” said Ms. Messineo. “They’ve been in very traumatic situations, and just to give them a few minutes of nature, and friendship, this is real. We don’t even know what this is doing for them.”

The good will flows both ways. Derby committee member Mike Cassidy said he enjoys meeting the veterans every year.

“Half of it is us thanking them for their service,” said Mr. Cassidy. “I think the other half of it is us showing off a little bit, sharing with them what we have here, who we are here. This is a pretty special place.”

Fred Ruhlemann is a Viet Nam veteran who comes from his Connecticut home every year to fish the derby. He came out to see the young veterans and offer his support.

“When they get out, it was like when I got out,” said Mr. Ruhlemann. “You get home, nobody tells you nothing. When we came home, we didn’t get any of this kind of stuff so I love to see this kind of stuff for these young people. Any chance I get to work with the vets, I take. I know they’ve been doing this for years, but this is the first chance I got to be part of it, and it’s great.”

At Derby headquarters Wednesday evening, the veterans gathered to weigh in the fish they caught earlier in the day. The highlight of the week in the saltwater challenge is when the Island’s charter boat fleet volunteers their time and equipment to get the veterans out to the fishing hot spots.

“We had a blast,” said Major Hutto. “It’s been so cool for the captains to come and join us. They are the ones who volunteer their time, their boats, their efforts. They did an amazing job. They put us on fish, showed us how to do everything, talked us all the way through it. They obviously knew what they were doing. It wasn’t us, we were standing there with a reel.”

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Rafael Lopez Jr. weighed in a grand slam. — Steve Myrick

The veterans hauled in cooler after cooler of fish to be weighed. While the scene is familiar to derby anglers, the veterans seemed to be a bit bewildered by it all, as if they suddenly realized how big a deal this really is for Islanders. Their biggest problem seemed to be whose fish was which.

No one had a broader smile when the derby headquarters opened its doors than Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Rafael Lopez Jr., from San Antonio, Tex. He hauled a striper, a bonito, a false albacore, and a hefty 13-pound bluefish out of the coolers and walked up to the scales.

“I was lucky enough to get the grand slam,” said Sgt. Lopez. “I understand it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to catch any fish. It means a lot that they are able to give us these experiences. It’s part of their life, their lifestyle. They understand what it means.”

Major Hutto was still smiling at the weigh station Wednesday evening, hours after leaving chilly East Beach. Michelle Hutto had just weighed in her striped bass and then he put his own striper on the table. When the scale’s electric blue numbers settled down, he gave a little fist pump.

“That was supposed to be secret,” he said. “My wife turned her back, and mine was bigger than hers.”

The 72nd Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby ends Saturday evening at 10 p.m. The awards ceremony follows Sunday at 1 p.m., at the Farm Neck Golf Club. The awards ceremony is free and open to the public.