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Fishing Derby Gives War Veterans A Boost
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Fishing Derby Gives War Veterans A Boost

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Fishing Derby Gives War Veterans A Boost

Fishing Derby Gives War Veterans A Boost
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  • U.S. Air Force veteran Don Grant prepares his fishing gear at Breakwater Cove Marina before the 19th annual Monterey Bay Veterans Wheelchair Rock Cod Derby for veterans with disabilities on Sept. 26, 2009.
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    U.S. Air Force veteran Don Grant prepares his fishing gear at Breakwater Cove Marina before the 19th annual Monterey Bay Veterans Wheelchair Rock Cod Derby for veterans with disabilities on Sept. 26, 2009.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • The Monterey Bay Veterans Sports Rehabilitation Center uses fishing to help wounded veterans recover both mentally and physically. Here, participants and volunteers wait to board boats early in the morning.
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    The Monterey Bay Veterans Sports Rehabilitation Center uses fishing to help wounded veterans recover both mentally and physically. Here, participants and volunteers wait to board boats early in the morning.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • Volunteers help Navy veteran Stephen Snell board the fishing boat Chubasco. This boat is one of four used for the derby.
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    Volunteers help Navy veteran Stephen Snell board the fishing boat Chubasco. This boat is one of four used for the derby.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • Army veteran Juan Trevino (center), who is legally blind and suffers from nerve damage, reels in his first catch of the day.
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    Army veteran Juan Trevino (center), who is legally blind and suffers from nerve damage, reels in his first catch of the day.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • Navy veteran Herman Cheathan decorates his hat with a special hook from the fishing event.
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    Navy veteran Herman Cheathan decorates his hat with a special hook from the fishing event.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • The Rock Cod Derby first started in 1987 with six disabled veterans. The event has since grown so much that some veterans have to be turned away. Participants and volunteers ride on the boat back to shore near the end of the derby.
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    The Rock Cod Derby first started in 1987 with six disabled veterans. The event has since grown so much that some veterans have to be turned away. Participants and volunteers ride on the boat back to shore near the end of the derby.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • Army Sgt. E.Z. manages to make Navy veteran Gary Combs laugh, even though Combs is not feeling well.
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    Army Sgt. E.Z. manages to make Navy veteran Gary Combs laugh, even though Combs is not feeling well.
    Chris Jordan for NPR
  • While most fishing derbies are a competition to catch the largest fish, the Rock Cod Derby focuses on companionship and overcoming physical challenges. Here, Trevino stands out of his wheelchair to pull in a fish.
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    While most fishing derbies are a competition to catch the largest fish, the Rock Cod Derby focuses on companionship and overcoming physical challenges. Here, Trevino stands out of his wheelchair to pull in a fish.
    Chris Jordan for NPR

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As the sun rises over Monterey Bay off the central California coast, Chet McAndrews begins helping veterans board the Chubasco, a 60-foot charter fishing boat. The Chubasco is one of four boats that set out for the 19th annual Monterey Bay Veterans annual Rock Cod Derby.

McAndrews is the founder of the derby, one of the oldest recreational rehabilitation programs for veterans in the country.

It takes McAndrews just minutes to board a group of disabled veterans, including five in wheelchairs and two with walkers. His system runs like a well-oiled machine. It's a far cry from when he started the first fishing derby with six disabled veterans in 1987.

"Oh my God, the first one we did, none of us knew what we we're doing — either working with the handicapped or doing any of that, plus putting them on a boat," McAndrews says. "Just the milestone alone of getting them to come here to trust us enough to put them on a boat, take them out in the ocean and just go fishing is monumental."

What's also been monumental for this volunteer organization is how the program has grown.

"We've actually had to start cutting people off and saying [that] we just don't have the room, we just don't have the facilities," McAndrews says.

The Monterey Bay Veterans Sports Rehab Center, which has organized the derby, has started working with organizations in at least a dozen states to develop their own fishing derbies.

World War II veteran Victor Smith waiting on a dock i

World War II veteran Victor Smith waits to board a boat at the 19th annual Wheelchair Rock Cod Derby for disabled veterans. Chris Jordan for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Chris Jordan for NPR
World War II veteran Victor Smith waiting on a dock

World War II veteran Victor Smith waits to board a boat at the 19th annual Wheelchair Rock Cod Derby for disabled veterans.

Chris Jordan for NPR

'Don't Give Up'

Just after 8 a.m., all eyes aboard the Chubasco turn toward Juan Trevino.

With the help of his leg braces, Trevino stands up a bit out of his wheelchair and leans back to gain some leverage as he reels in his first catch of the day. He pulls in a 4-pound vermilion rockfish.

The goal of most fishing derbies is to catch the biggest fish, but that's not the point here.

Veterans like Trevino come for the company and the challenge. In addition to nerve damage in his legs and hands, the Vietnam veteran is legally blind.

"But yet, I don't give up. And that's what I tell people — don't give up," Trevino says.

It's a message he has for younger disabled veterans like Jeanne O'Brien, who was injured in Afghanistan.

"I know I have limitations, but this is something I know I can do," O'Brien says.

She sits on a seat built into her walker as she tries to fight off sea sickness and catch her first fish.

"It's a place where you can let your guard down and share war stories or fish stories and tales. There's a camaraderie like anything else that you don't get anywhere," O'Brien says. "It's awesome. I'm so happy they do things like this."

Monterey Bay Veterans holds two annual fishing derbies as well as daily outings for disabled veterans throughout the West. It has worked with veterans from World War II to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Executive Director John Whitacre says the severity of injuries coupled with the age of the returning troops makes the need for this program even greater.

"Every veterans home, every military hospital is packed with young soldiers right now. This is the right time to be doing a recreational rehabilitation program on a national basis," Whitacre says.

In May 2010, derby champions from each state will compete on Monterey Bay to become the first national disabled veteran angler of the year.

Krista Almanzan reports for member station KAZU.

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