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One of the oldest recreational rehabilitation programs for veterans is expanding to serve disabled veterans across the nation. For more than 20 years, the Monterey Bay Veterans Sports Rehab Center in California has helped wounded vets heal mentally and physically through fishing.
Last weekend, the group set out on one of their derbies. From member station KAVU, Krista Almanzan reports.
Mr. CHET MCANDREWS (Vietnam Veteran): All right. We're going to need some extra hands here, guys.
KRISTA ALMANZAN: As the sun rises over the Monterey Bay, Vietnam veteran and program founder Chet McAndrews begins helping veterans board the Chubasco. It's a 60-foot charter fishing boat, one of four boats that set out for the Monterey Bay Veterans annual Rock Cod Derby.
Mr. MCANDREWS: All right. Be sure and grab the frame, guys.
ALMANZAN: 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 fishing derby with six disabled veterans back in 1987.
Mr. MCANDREWS: Oh my God. The first one we did, none of us knew what we were doing — either working with the handicapped or doing any of that, plus putting them on a boat. Just the milestone alone of us getting them to come here, to trust us enough to put them on a boat, take them out in the ocean and go fishing was just monumental.
ALMANZAN: What's also been monumental for this volunteer organization is how the program has grown.
Mr. MCANDREWS: We've actually had to start cutting people off and saying we just don't have the room, we just don't have the facilities.
ALMANZAN: The Monterey Bay Veterans have started working with organizations in at least a dozen states to develop their own fishing derbies.
Mr. MCANDREWS: All right, Juan, bring her in.
Mr. JUAN TREVINO: We're about ready…
Mr. MCANDREWS: Bring her in.
ALMANZAN: Just after 8:00 in the morning, all eyes aboard the Chubasco turn toward Juan Trevino.
Mr. MCANDREWS: Oh man. What do you got? What do you got?
ALMANZAN: 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.
Mr. TREVINO: I don't know, what kind is it?
ALMANZAN: He pulls in a four-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 vet is also legally blind.
Mr. TREVINO: But yet, you see, I mean, I don't give up. And that's what I tell people that - you know, don't give up.
ALMANZAN: It's a message he has for younger disabled veterans like Jeanne O'Brien, who was injured in Afghanistan.
Mr. JEANNE O'BRIEN: I know I have limitations, but this is something I know I can do.
ALMANZAN: O'Brien sits on a seat built into her walker as she tries to fight off sea sickness and catch her first fish.
Ms. O'BRIEN: It's a place you can let your guard down and trade war stories and fish stories and tales. And there's a camaraderie unlike anything else, you know, that you don't really get anywhere. So it's awesome. I'm so happy they do things like this.
ALMANZAN: The Monterey Bay Veterans holds two annual fishing derbies, as well as daily outings for disabled veterans throughout the West. They've worked with veterans from World War II to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Executive director John Whitacre says the severity of the injuries coupled with the age of returning troops makes the need for this program even greater.
Mr. JOHN WHITACRE (Monterey Bay Veterans): Every veterans hospital, every veterans home, every military hospital is packed with young soldiers now. This is the right time to be doing a recreational rehabilitation program on a national basis.
ALMANZAN: In May 2010, the champions from each state will compete on the Monterey Bay to become the first national disabled veteran angler of the year.
For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan in Monterey.
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