A Lesson in Humility
It was May 2012 when I was trolling around in an online kayak fishing forum and I came across a posting asking for volunteers to take wounded warriors out kayak fishing. They were looking for guides and gear as this was to be their first event ever. Now I have never “guided” before, but I have been fishing for nearly 40 years and I’ve shown plenty of people how to fish. I also have an appreciation for on-the-water safety and knowledge about how to handle various situations that may arise out there. So I responded with my offer to help out.
I had no idea what to expect. I’m an extremely competitive person. I fish tournaments. I play hockey. I play poker, and I’m focused in my day job at moving up the corporate ladder. So it was no surprise that I then started trash talking in the kayak fishing forum about how my vet was going to catch the most, and the biggest, fish. To me, it was game on. My vet was going to win.
As the day got closer, I meticulously planned out our day. The group was going to launch into Raritan Bay from Port Monmouth. This is a fantastic fishery which I am very familiar with. I know a channel that runs from shore to about 3 miles out. The channel started about 3/4 of a mile east of the launch. The plan would be to follow the channel out, looking for the fish and then work our way back. It would be as much as a 7 and a half mile paddle in search of fluke.
I was up early on the day of the event. But this is nothing new to me as I can never sleep the night before fishing. I get too excited, knowing how much I love to be out there floating around, fishing. I arrived at the event around 7:30am and see a few faces that I knew and plenty of new folks, all volunteers eager to participate. This was HOW-NJ’s first event so they didn’t yet have a dedicated fleet of kayaks for the vets, so volunteers brought extras. We all prepared our rigs as we awaited for our warriors to arrive.
The van, from the VA hospital, arrived around 8:30 with seven vets and their activities director. I expected to see faces like mine, displaying the excitement of their anticipation of the day ahead. But that wasn’t what I saw. What I saw were tired faces. The look was as if they thought they were being dragged to some activity where someone was going to make them do something that they really didn’t care about. A look that said “Why did you get me out of bed this morning when I could’ve just slept in?” It was at this point that I realized this was going to be much different than I had anticipated.
We all gathered at the beach for a quick safety review and then the coordinator started to pair off participants with guides. The warriors ran the gamut from athletic to overweight and out of shape. Who would I get? Would they be able to make the seven mile paddle?
One by one the vets were paired with guides. The coordinator eventually came to a gentleman, probably in his late fourties or early fifties. He was a big guy, carrying several extra pounds and didn’t look like he had exercised in quite a while. The coordinator tells the gentleman, Ron, that I will be his guide. I now came to the realization that we were not going to do a seven mile paddle and I needed a plan B. I knew of an area that sometimes holds fish about 3/4 of a mile away, called The Sock. We would head out there.
We headed out on what I would’ve normally considered a very bad day on the water. If I had 5 minutes of the day that Ron was having, I would’ve just said to myself “something isn’t right today”, packed up and gone home. It started with his seat. He looked very uncomfortable. His body was leaning far back and awkwardly twisted. I offered to fix it, but he didn’t want help. He was in a Hobie Mirage kayak and had trouble pedallng and keeping up, probably because of his seating position. A few times he even tried using his hands to ‘pedal’ the kayak. At one point he flipped over and it took a while for three of us to get him back in the kayak. He was soaking wet, had only caught one very little fish and looked like he was having an abysmal time. I told him, over and over again, to let me know if he wanted to go back in and he would just assure me that it was OK to stay out. Did he really want to stay out or was he saying that because he didn’t want to ruin our day?
It eventually got late enough that we had to get in for lunch. We pulled our lines in and headed in towards the launch. Ron had trouble pedalling the kayak so we had to tow him back in with another kayak. It took a while to get back to the launch. I left Ron about 50 feet from shore so I could beach my kayak. I walked back out to him, removed the mirage drive, pulled up his rudder and walked him towards shore.
Four feet from shore was the moment of the day for me, the moment that changed me and opened my eyes and heart. We are just four feet from shore, on what I would’ve normally considered to be one of the worst days on the water, Ron sighs and asks me “Do we really have to go in. I’m having an incredible time.” I froze with humility as I took in the magnitude of what had just happened. I helped a man, a veteran, our warrior heal. And it was as simple as putting a rod in his hand, taking him out in a kayak, and providing support and encouragement. I was hooked.
As I prepared to leave, I went to each of the veterans and said good-bye. They each thanked me for the day. I found this to be very surreal. Here I am, privelidged to be able to provide a nice day to someone who suffers because of the service he gave to protect my freedoms and he is thanking me. I thought to myself “Soldier, you deserve this and so much more.” I thanked them for their service and committed to myself that I would spend more time enabling days like this for them, their brothers, their sisters and their families.
Written by Jonathan Mueller, NJ Chapter Volunteer