“There’s my hero,” said Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association president Janet Messineo as Emanuel Thompson walked into the Beach Plum Inn on Thursday morning. It had been a day since Mr. Thompson, an Air Force veteran from Virginia, had caught his derby-leading 34.72-pound striper on Capt. Buddy Vanderhoop’s charter boat Tomahawk out of Menemsha, but he was still beaming.
“It’s the biggest fish I ever caught,” Mr. Thompson said. “It was a real struggle. I was like, don’t rush it, don’t rush it, don’t rush it. Keep your point up, if he wants to fight let him fight, just reel it in a little bit, but I was struggling.”
Mr. Thompson is one of seven wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from Fort Belvoir military hospital in Virginia and the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland participating in this year’s American Heroes Saltwater Challenge hosted by Bob and Sarah Nixon, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn and Home Port Restaurant. As of last Friday Mrs. Nixon was still working to add one more fisherman to the rolls, Tyson Quink, a 23-year-old former college football player who lost both of his legs to a bomb during a deployment in Afghanistan.
“At first he wasn’t very enthusiastic about coming up here but I think this week was just what the doctor ordered,” Mrs. Nixon said on Thursday.
After three days of fishing by boat out of Menemsha, and on land off Chappaquiddick, the vets had landed countless keepers, but none more impressive than Mr. Thompson’s striper.
“When I finally pulled it up onto the boat Buddy looked at it and his eyes got big and he had a big smile on his face. I said, ‘I need a break,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no. There’s one out there that’s bigger. We need to go catch it.”
As it turns out, after Wednesday night’s weigh-in at derby headquarters in Edgartown, there wasn’t a bigger one out there, at least not yet.
After a long exhale Mr. Thompson reflected on the week. “It was a great experience,” he said, “And exciting.”
On an overcast and drizzly Tuesday the veterans cast their lines into the rips from East Beach on Chappaquiddick from afternoon until early evening. A campfire was built as the day turned chilly and the Home Port Restaurant provided a spread of burgers and potato salad on a foldout table, but many of the men and women instead stayed at their poles waiting for the next bite. Robert Scott and his mother Valence of Long Island manned a rod hoping to continue their week’s hot streak of bluefish. Mr. Scott suffered a traumatic brain injury during a tour in Iraq in 2009.
“I speak a lot for Robert,” said Mrs. Scott. Ten years ago her son was a trader for Goldman Sachs in downtown Manhattan when the world changed.
“He missed the 7:37 train that morning and took the 8:03 train instead and believe you me that’s what saved him,” Mrs. Scott said. That September morning Mrs. Scott wouldn’t hear from her son for eight hours and when they were finally reunited, Mr. Scott was changed.
“When he got home I saw my son and he was gray,” she said. “Gray head, gray face, his black suit and briefcase were gray.”
Soon after, Mr. Scott enlisted in the Army. Shortly before he was set to return home from a tour in Iraq in 2009, Mrs. Scott received a call that Robert was in a coma. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury and would not emerge for two and a half weeks. Mrs. Scott later learned that her son been clinically dead for 30 minutes and as a result he suffers from short term-memory loss. While he was in his coma Mr. Scott says that he saw a bright light, and then he saw his late grandmother.
“I heard her say wake up,” he said. Only, his grandmother had put it much more colorfully. Ever since, Mr. Scott has carried his grandmother’s bible wherever he goes.
“Everybody at Walter Reed says you’re a lucky boy, someone was looking out for you” Mrs. Scott said. “When I walked in to his hospital bed that one day and I heard my son say, ‘Good morning Mom,’ I screamed so loud, I said, ‘What a mighty God.’ That was the first time I cried. Prayer works. I don’t worry about nothing anymore.”
After everything Mr. Scott has been through he said he enjoyed the change in scenery.
“It’s very relaxing,” he said as he looked out over the ocean.
Jack Nixon, today 10 years old, dreamed up the idea for the veterans’ excursion three years ago while reading up on his angling.
“I was reading this book called The Big One [by David Kinney] and under the book was a newspaper article about wounded veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq and I told my dad I wish those guys could fish,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s been a great experience.”
For Scott Beauchamp, a two-tour Afghanistan veteran, also from Long Island, the support of the Vineyard community has been moving.
“It’s been a lot fun, a lot of fishing, and a lot of good people here taking a lot of their time to show that people still care about us in the military,” he said. “We just really appreciate it.”
As of Tuesday Mr. Beauchamp had caught seven blues and one striper, a 21-pounder at that. By the end of the week he would win the Saltwater Challenge’s High Rod Award by catching 24 fish.
“This is me and my wife’s first vacation since all this has happened to me,” he said. “Even prior to going overseas you don’t really get a whole lot of time beforehand so this is our first getaway in a couple years. Some of us will never get an experience like this. This is a place I’ve always wanted to go to but it’s one of those dreams that realistically just ain’t gonna happen. But thanks to a lot of people here, they made it happen.”