Television is a powerful medium.
Done well, it has the ability to entertain, educate and on occasion appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Mike Geary wouldn't disagree. A few years back, on the road for his job, he was watching a sports program on HBO about Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit group started in the Vietnam era that helps wounded U.S. veterans assimilate back into society through sporting events and various outdoor activities.
What Geary saw on television -- severely injured veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- moved him to act. "I was riveted by it,” he said. “It inspired me. I knew I had to do something for our wounded vets."
Through the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project, a partnership between the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA, Geary, owner of Lewis and Clark Expeditions in Helena, Montana, offered his services as a fly fishing guide. More specifically, he offered a four-day wilderness fishing trip for any wounded soldier who wanted to attend.
Last May, Geary got his wish. Four disabled servicemen, one physical therapist from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and five of his guides spent four days fly fishing the Smith River, a blue-ribbon trout stream 100 miles east of Helena.
"For many of these wounded veterans, they have an emotional bridge to cross,” said Geary, who has been in the guiding business for 25 years. "Some feel alienated after sustaining such life-altering injuries. They were injured in the prime of their athletic lives, now they have to make major adjustments. They’ve been dealt a difficult hand, and I felt a trip like this could help them."
The Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project provides year-around sports programs, including fishing trips, sporting clays outings, canoeing adventures and much more, to severely wounded soldiers, airmen and marines who were injured fighting the war on terrorism.
The nonprofit program receives no federal dollars. The outings -- everything from airfare to food to lodging to equipment -- are underwritten through individual donations and with grant monies secured through various foundations, said Kathy Celo, operations service manager with Disabled Sports USA. "It breaks your heart to see a soldier who is a double or triple amputee,” she said. "Still, we know these activities, whether it’s fishing or downhill skiing, can help them rebuild their self-esteem and assimilate back into society. It teaches them that they don’t have to have any limitations.”
Said Geary: "One of the things I noticed on our trip was how well trained these soldiers are. They have the fortitude and courage to get through their injuries. I’m telling you, they all have can-do attitudes. It's inspiring to see up close.”
Geary said he was also amazed by how well the wounded soldiers, one of whom had lost both of his legs, picked up the sport of fly fishing, and how they had no reluctance to help with the heavy labor of a wilderness fishing trip.
"Let’s just say they weren't like my typical customers,” said Geary. "They picked up the fly fishing exceptionally well. None of them had done it before in their lives. But in four days they went from novices to intermediate-skilled fly anglers. One of the biggest surprises of the trip for me was how their disabilities just dissolved. After a while, I didn’t even know they were injured. The trip was a life-changing experience for me and my guides."
When Geary started planning last year’s trip, he knew funding would be the biggest hurdle. Geary sent an email to his regular customers, telling them what he was planning. "My customers just stepped up," he said. “They delivered the money. They wanted to help, too.”
Geary is once again planning another wilderness fly fishing trip down the Smith River. It will happen in early May. Calling from his cell phone in Seattle, Washington, after a fundraiser for this year’s trip, Geary said he collected $5,000.00. He was very pleased, saying he has room for every wounded vet who is interested in learning how to fly fish. “The thing is, no one has really asked any of us not associated with the military to sacrifice while we're fighting this global war," he said. "We need to sacrifice. It’s our duty. And what I’m finding out is that all you have to do is ask.”
On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, American servicemen and women are risking their lives and limbs every second of every day. To walk in their boots, I suspect, is to live in a perpetual state of fear. Still, they do their duty to preserve our freedoms here at home. Geary is right. We need to sacrifice. And I can't think of a more worthwhile cause than the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project.
If you’d like to help, send your tax-deductible contribution (made payable to Disabled Sports USA) to: 451 Hungerford Drive, Suite 100, Rockville MD 20850. Please mark your check “Soldier Fund/Smith River Montana,” if you'd like to contribute to that particular outing. For more information: www.dsusa.org.