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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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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 waits to board a boat at the 19th annual Wheelchair Rock Cod Derby for disabled veterans. Chris Jordan for NPR hide caption

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Chris Jordan for NPR

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.