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Disabled vets have their day on the lake

Sunday News Correspondent

September 09. 2017 10:51PM
Tom Blanchard of Billerica, Mass., an Army veteran, shows off two of the bass he landed Saturday during the annual New England Paralyzed Veterans of America Bass Trail, a friendly competition in which Bassmaster All-Star anglers served as guides and fishing companions to disabled veterans. The event is held at Camp Robindel in Moultonborough. (Bea Lewis/Sunday News Correspondent)

MOULTONBOROUGH - Disabled veterans got to leave their cares and chairs behind on Saturday and spend the day on Lake Winnipesaukee fishing.

"It's not about catching fish. It's about getting away from everything," said event organizer "Tiny" LaFontaine of the cathartic effects of helping returning and injured veterans to take part in recreational activities similar to ones they enjoyed long before life-changing injuries.

LaFontaine of Woburn, Mass., recounted that he was married and had a family when the Vietnam War broke out and as a result didn't serve. His best friend, Albert "Alby" Cail was drafted and when he came home the fog of war followed.

"He had PTSD really bad. But back then they called it mental illness," said Fontaine. "I pledged to buy him a boat, concentrate on sobriety and go fishing."

LaFontaine kept his promise and their time on the water was healing, at least for a while.

"He had 10 years and then it got the best of him," LaFontaine said while describing Cail's passing.

Bob Campbell of Woburn, Mass., who also helped spearhead the event, said he has a soft spot in his heart for anyone who is disabled. As a teen he suffered a spinal injury in a hockey game and was initially paralyzed from the waist down, but following surgery, a lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation, he eventually recovered.

Lori Chase of Belmont, who has been volunteering at the event for 14 years, is a social worker and recounted that she enjoys working with veterans, an experience she first had when she interned at the VA medical centers in Manchester and Massachusetts while going to school.

"The spirit of the whole event is so awesome. There is no judgment and everyone who volunteers is just here to help," said Chase.

"We've got 15 active duty Navy veterans running the kitchen and there are anglers participating from Maine, Vermont, New York and Connecticut," she continued.

For the boat captains and bass fishing professionals who volunteer their time and equipment, it's a way of saying thanks to those who sacrificed so much for their country.

Being in a boat and feeling the wind in their hair gives a measure of freedom, and for some a chance behind the wheel. Alex O'Brien of Milton, Mass., who has been coming to the tournament for the past 10 years, didn't land any fish on Saturday but flashed a broad smile as he recounted that he did get to drive the boat.

Ray "Hunter" Brunelle, past president of the Merrimack Valley Chapter of the Nam Knights of America a motorcycle group made up of military and police veterans, said its membership has been helping out with the event since 1999.

Club vice president Christopher "Scrubs" Kokley, was an Army medic with the 10th Mountain Division and now works as a nurse at a Boston Hospital.

"I wouldn't want to be doing anything else," Kokley said, who spent his lone day off helping to provide the manpower to get wheelchair bound vets in and out of a boat.

Nat and Ann Greenfield, who own Camp Robindel donate the use of the property as a base of operations for the tournament.

"We get assistance and generous donations from many local businesses and that makes a big difference in how successful it is," said Chase.

The event provides an often long-lost opportunity to get back out on the water and fish, swap fish stories, and reunite with old acquaintances as well as launch new friendships. Highlights of the day included a silent auction and raffles.

Jim Wallack of Londonderry who was among the anglers participating in a bass fishing tournament for paralyzed veterans gets lifted out of the boat and into his wheelchair via a cadre of volunteers. Wallack who served in the Coast Guard was among those who helped found the event. (Bea Lewis/Sunday News Correspondent)

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