The Press Newspaper

Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

The Press Newspaper


Ottawa County packed a patriotic punch in a pre-July 4th excursion honoring wounded heroes.

Political leaders, county staff, students, veterans, businesses and local organizations united to deliver the best the area has to offer to 61 travelers from the Kentucky Wounded Heroes Project, an organization serving a five-region area including Ohio.

And the Ottawa County efforts didn’t disappoint.

“I’ve decided one of the best parts of God’s creation is walleye fishing on Lake Erie,” said Jim Oates, a chaplain from Shelbyville, Ky., who accompanied the group on the trip dubbed Walleyes for Wounded Warriors. “This is a unique place. You can really feel the heart of the people.”

  Kentucky Wounded Heroes Project President Chuck Reed, left,
  Speaks with two men during the five-day event along Lake Erie
  in Ottawa County.

The anglers spent five days on the Lake Erie shoreline, June 25-29. And the weather seemed to be a willing partner in the three-day fishing adventure, serving up warm days and sunshine the entire trip.

Chris Epperson thought he’d be bored fishing. He gets restless easily, he said. The member of the National Guard couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Today was just action packed. It was non-stop. We were hitting the moment the line hit the water,” Epperson smiled.

Local crews cleaned and filleted the fish. Then the bounty is split among them. Last year, each person took home about 30 pounds of walleye to their families. They expected the same or better this year.

Off the lake, the men and women got a taste of local life from one end of the county to the other. They stayed at Shady Acres and stops included a meet-and-greet with charter captains at Magee East Marina, a night out at Rob’s Limestone Tavern in Rocky Ridge, a trip to Put-in-Bay and dinner at TJ’s Smokehouse and breakfasts at Ala Carte in Port Clinton.

Their experience culminated with a fish fry at Tall Timbers Campground near Port Clinton. As they ambled off the boats Saturday, the wounded heroes were met by Port Clinton and Catawba fire trucks, police and sheriff’s deputies who escorted them to the shelter house. As the procession entered the campground gates, young and old campers alike lined the stone road waving flags and clapping as an honor guard saluted.

“This community is amazing. You’ve got some real patriots – more than the average town,” said the Wounded Heroes Project President Chuck Reed. “They’ve been bending over backgrounds for months to help make this happen.”

At the helm of that effort were Veterans Services Commission Director Sara Toris, County Commissioner Jim Sass, Facilities Director Jim Adkins and Kara Hart of the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center.

“I had the pleasure of sitting by a veteran, Jim, who flew helicopter missions,” Sass recalled. “Though he was modest, I found out he was written about by fellow vets who wrote some books about their part in the war. Talk about a career. He was a test pilot at some point in his career. He eventually retired and joined the Guard.”

The Wounded Heroes organization initially catered to veterans of military service. In recent years, it has expanded its reach to include those police, fire and EMS staff injured in the line of duty. Some of those on this trip included soldiers who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, a sheriff’s deputy who suffered a brain injury in a traffic accident and an officer who injured her back she tried to break up a fight and the assailants turned on her.

Brett Hightower counts himself among the vice presidents of the organization. The retired soldier was injured by an IED in Afghanistan. He got hooked – so to speak - into joining the organization when he attended a salmon fishing trip in Alaska.

Their stories are chilling whether it happened on the battlefield abroad or on the streets of an American neighborhood. And often, they bottle up emotions in their personal battle to return to normalcy in order to hide the pain from their loved ones, explained Reed, a retired state trooper who spent 34 years in the National Guard.

Helping them heal is the core mission of Wounded Heroes organization. The healing process begins with teaming them with one another in nature, whether hunting, fishing or some other adventure. Just removing them from daily frustrations of life is a big step, Reed added.

Camaraderie then builds over the days and most open up to their peers who have shared similar experiences.

“Mother Nature is healing sort and a lot of these guys have some serious problems,” he said looking among the jovial crowd gathered for the meal at the campground. “They talk to one another about things they don’t talk about with their wives, their families, their friends. They decompress right before your very eyes.”

Incentive for the group’s formation grew out of Reed’s days as a young U.S. Marine watching soldiers return home from the Vietnam War in 1972 to the taunts and ridicule of a torn nation.

“There was no celebration. No uplifting so to speak. It wasn’t a silent war. It was big in the media. And somehow it made the warriors – the soldiers – the bad guys,” Reed remembered.

He was determined one day to show appreciation to his fellow veterans any way he could.

“These guys signed a blank check up to and including their lives,” Reed said of the dedication of the veterans.

The idea for the outdoor trips bloomed in 2008 when Reed headed to Alaska to manage a friend’s fishing business as a favor. The beauty of the Alaskan scenery offered a calmness and vitality he knew would provide that healing power so many veterans desperately needed, Reed said.

The trips to the Lake Erie shores began three years ago when the Kentucky organization connected with Ohio liaisons Joe Hein of Celina and Joe Stelzer of St. Mary’s.

“Joe and I have been fishing Lake Erie for 25 years. We knew it was like home,” Hein said.

The first group included primarily 15 participants from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox in 2012. In 2013, the number grew to 29. And this year, the fishing crew topped out over 60.

“We are looking forward to working with them in the future,” Stelzer said, referring to Ottawa County community. “This is our eighth day of fishing in three years and we haven’t missed a day. The big guy has been good to us.”

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