It started as a conversation over beers: “Let’s take some veterans fishing.”
Next came a Facebook post on a page for veterans.
Then came the applications — way more than the organizers expected.
Then came the donations — also way more than the organizers expected.
The result: Two fishing boats — the Reel Tease and the Uncle Bud — headed out from the Indian River Inlet Marina around 1 a.m. on Saturday, July 14, with eight fishermen, ranging in age from 28 to their mid-70s. All had either served in the military in the past or are still serving.
About three and a half hours later, the boats reached the Washington Canyon — a popular fishing spot off the coast, near Ocean City, Md. After trying to nap on the trip out, the fishermen were treated to a sunrise that they won’t soon forget.
For one of them, the experience included something most fisherman only dream about: hauling in a beautiful white marlin.
As Damien Wells recalls, he first realized he had a marlin “when I saw it jumping out of the water, about 100 yards out.
“They said, ‘Keep reeling, keep reeling,’” he recalled. “The captain kept reversing the boat,” to help him out, Wells said. The magnificent fish was about 5 feet long “without the tip,” Wells added. “It put up a fight — way harder than I expected,” he said.
Another part he didn’t expect: The captain, Andy Greene, informed him that he had to jump in the water, for luck — because he had caught a marlin. “They let me wait ’til we got back to the dock, though,” Wells said.
Even without the amazing catch, Wells said, the trip was memorable and a rare treat for the Air Force veteran.
“I smiled the whole time,” he said. “And I don’t smile a lot. I felt relaxed and at peace. It was good to just get out there and decompress.”
His good friend and fellow Air Force veteran, with whom he served for several years, agreed. For Louis Pascavage, the best part of the trip was watching his buddy enjoy himself. The two have “been through a lot together,” Pascavage said. It was the story of their friendship, as well as a third friend who couldn’t make the trip, that make the organizers pick them from the list of applicants.
“We explained how we’ve known each other for like 10 years, the things we’ve been through, how we’ve kept each other sane and breathing,” Wells said.
Pascavage, a single father of four whose career in the Air Force included work on Stealth aircraft, said the trip was a rare chance to relax and hang out with his friend, without any worries.
“It was just phenomenal,” he said. “The boat, everything — it was awesome.”
Both men said the trip was a welcome release from the day-to-day stress of their current lives — both work at Joint Base Maguire in New Jersey — and from service-related stress and anxiety. Pascavage retired from the Air Force in 2014, after 18 years of service. Wells is still in the Reserves.
“I can tell you that there are a lot of veterans that would appreciate the opportunity to do something like that,” Wells said of the fishing trip.
One of the veterans on the Uncle Bud that day, Jay Lowensberry of Elizabethtown, Pa., agreed. Lowensberry, a Purple Heart recipient and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan — one as a helicopter crew chief and one as an infantryman — said the trip was one of his first ocean fishing experiences. Fishing, Lowensberry said, became his “happy place” after he participated in a fly-fishing program for veterans in Montana.
After the July 14 trip, Lowensberry said, ocean fishing “is something I’d like to pursue a little.” Just the fact that he can function on a boat is amazing, he said. “I got blown up” during one of his tours of duty, Lowensberry said, and he has had issues with motion since then.
“You forget about everything else,” Lowensberry said of his ocean fishing experiences. “It’s incredible.”
He marveled at the generosity of those who donated time and money, and things like bait for the fish and food for the veterans, to help make the trip happen.
“Honestly, it’s way more than I deserve,” said the Army veteran, who served from 1986 to 2012.
Organizer Chris Gastwirth, a fire chief in Malvern, Pa., said the trips resulted from a conversation he had had with his “boat neighbor” at Indian River, Andy Greene, who captains the Uncle Bud.
“He said to me, ‘I want to take some veterans out on a fishing trip,’” Gastwirth recalled. “I immediately thought, ‘Wow, this is a very generous gesture,’ due to the cost of a trip,” Gastwirth said.
“We then talked to Carl Meyer, owner of the Reel Tease, about the trip, and he said he wanted to do the same on the same date,” Gastwirth said. “So I went to Facebook and started a thread to find some vets, and I started to get inquires.”
“This was a great feeling,” Gastwirth said, but it was hard to pick from the applicants, because so many of the veterans’ stories were quite compelling.
Sponsors who helped fund the trip included Jim Renehan from Renehan Builders in Malvern, as well as Bud Haly of Haly Oil, and Great Valley Propane, also in Malvern.
Gastwirth said there are plans to do more trips, possibly in the fall. He said the ultimate goal is to set up a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization to fund future trips.
“This trip started out because of the respect that should be given to the ones who served. This was a way to do that,” he said.
Anyone interested in helping with future trips can contact Gastwirth by email at email@example.com.
By Kerin Magill