Wounded, disabled vets fish for a little fun

BY BOB WACHS, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/12/19

JORDAN LAKE — Sometimes a spontaneous thought produces a tangible result.

Such was the case a few days ago at the 5th annual Jordan Lake Top Shelf Fishin’ Festival, sponsored by Operation …

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Wounded, disabled vets fish for a little fun

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Posted

JORDAN LAKE — Sometimes a spontaneous thought produces a tangible result.

Such was the case a few days ago at the 5th annual Jordan Lake Top Shelf Fishin’ Festival, sponsored by Operation North State, an all-volunteer organization aimed at making life more enjoyable for wounded and disabled military veterans and their families in North Carolina.

The thought that created the Jordan Lake festival and almost two dozen other military-themed events came about several years ago when Winston-Salem businessman Terry Snyder and a group of friends were lamenting how little was being done by government agencies to help disabled vets.

“It was like a light came on while we were talking,” he says, “and we said, ‘Why don’t we do something?’ I thought we had no right to gripe if we weren’t doing something.”

That “something” turned into ONS, which now sponsors similar festivals across the state as well as a deep-sea fishing excursion out of Morehead City, trips to Carolina Panthers football and Durham Bulls baseball games, golf outings for those able to play and a host of other activities. ONS also sends out some 1,500 Christmas boxes in December of each year to deployed North Carolina troops.

The Jordan Lake fishing day saw 50 wounded and disabled vets of many different ages and limitations and their caregivers, if needed, paired with a volunteer host boater for a day on the water. There was no charge for the anglers or the hosts or for the food provided during the day and a sumptuous evening meal at nearby Mount Carmel Baptist Church. All of the funds and products expended come from volunteers — individuals, clubs, churches and civic organizations.

“And the guys — and the ladies, we have some female anglers — love it,” Snyder says.

One of the veterans who loved it is Miles Wyatt of Salisbury, a Marine Corps veteran who served from 1972-75, including tours of duty in both Okinawa and Puerto Rico. Today he gets around in a motorized chair and has limited use of his right hand.

“This is rehab for me,” he says, “to come out here with the other folks and get on the water and not have to put on airs. I love it.”

This day he was fishing with another vet, his best friend and Army veteran Mike Swan, who served in Vietnam.

“Miles and I grew up together in Salisbury,” Swan said. “I was so glad to make it home from Vietnam.”

Another fisherman was David Shole, a much-younger Marine Corps veteran who served from 2009-13. He’s now a veteran of ONS fishing festivals, having taken part in a similar event at Randleman Lake in Randolph County — a far cry from the environs from his tours in southeast Asia and especially in Afghanistan.

“Out here on the water,” he says, “is a way for me to clear my head. It’s so peaceful.”

A tour of duty in Afghanistan also figured into the life of another wounded warrior, one known to many of his fishing peers and to ONS organizers. Will Stewart of Fayetteville, who received a major bomb blast to his head while serving in Afghanistan, is totally blind. Yet he has overcome limb paralysis to the point he can stand and walk short distances and use a special electronic reel equipped with a trigger to pull in fish.

“Will is a great guy,” Snyder says. “There’s nobody who loves fishing more than he does. He just wants his life back and he’s going to do everything he can to make it happen.”

Stewart, for his part, says when he’s fishing from the shore or out on the water, he doesn’t think of much more than just enjoying the day. He’s been known often to tell people far and wide that when he’s got a hook in the water, “I’m chilling...just chilling.” This year he spent a little longer on the water than normal and got to the evening meal a bit late but Lady Luck smiled on him when he won a hand-made quilt in a raffle at the meal.

One of Snyder’s objectives is “to get these guys and gals out of the house, get them out in the open, establish friendships.”

“Given the hardships many veterans have to live with, anything that encourages them is what we want to provide,” he said. “We do these things to put a smile on the faces of the fishermen. This is their day; it really excites them to be catching fish.”

Enjoying the festival isn’t limited to the wounded vets. Local and area host boaters also share in the joy. Blake Farrell of Pittsboro was a first-time host this year. “It was great,” he says, “went really well.” His vet was John Jones, an Army medic with 32 years of service until suffering a stroke. “He told me,” Farrell says, “that these folks have treated him really well and that if he comes back next year, he’d like for us to pair up again.” That could be because the two of them pulled in 17 fish, including a two-pound Crappie.

“Seeing all the vets and being with them was really touching,” Farrell says. “We had a blast.”

All of the ONS events are “grassroots” funded, Snyder says. “We couldn’t do these things without all the volunteers.”

And when he says volunteers, he means it. ONS handles approximately $500,000 worth of cash, goods and services annually to hold its events and about one-half of one percent is spent on administrative expenses. Most of that is postage; the organization has no paid staff. Funding the Jordan Lake festival requires about $5,000. Most of that is for gifts and door prizes for the vets as well as transportation to the festival and similar operating expenses.

“What we’re trying to do is to raise awareness to the tragic, deadly issue that 20 vets are committing suicide across the nation every day,” says Snyder, who is not a veteran but has an obvious soft spot for them. “We’re seeing and hearing about the difference recreational fishing therapy is making in their lives.”

More information or ways to support the work of ONS can be found on the organization’s website at www.operationnorthstate.com or by mail at 151 Windemere Ct., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27127. Snyder can be reached at 336-764-5967 (office) or 336-406-3459 (cell).

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