By John P. Lopez
SARGENT, Tx. — They arrive survivors, most lucky to be alive.
They served in various branches of the Armed Forces and left pieces of themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq. They had limbs blown to shreds. They had 60-, 70-, sometimes 80-percent of their bodies burned. They suffered severe head injuries, spinal injuries and psychological torture unfathomable for those who never have known the perils of combat.
And then they smile. The pain and turmoil goes away, or at the least is temporarily forgotten. They bring their wives and children and for one weekend they are not undergoing more treatment, rehab or surgery.
They roll into this fishing town that’s a mere spec of a place, tucked anonymously along the Texas Gulf Coast like just another strand of cordgrass along the endless marshes.
Sargent is a simple, sleepy haven of fishing camps, travel trailers and bait shops. There’s not much else to it, really, except on weekends when hundreds of center-consoles and kayaks from Houston and San Antonio play hopscotch on nearby East Matagorda Bay.
But this weekend is different. Once a year, you see what Sargent really is about and how its people define true grassroots passion.
“It’s the people,” said one veteran named Jeremiah, who first participated in the Sargent Tournament of Heroes benefiting PHOutdoors.org four years ago. “A lot of people do things for us and they give us something. It’s nice, but here it’s a relationship and friendship.”
Jeremiah, who suffered a devastating leg injury in combat, went on to tell the story of how Capt. Hank Sandefer — one of the most deeply-involved leaders of the Tournament Of Heroes — built a friendship with him. Sandefer invited him back to Sargent to fish after the 2013 Tournament, and helped him decide on a career-path. From being lost, injured and confused about which direction his life would turn post-military career, Jeremiah announced this weekend that in August he will earn a degree in Wildlife Biology.
“That’s what you do for us,” Jeremiah told the gathering of volunteers and friends of the organization last weekend. “It’s not just taking us fishing.”
The fishing — taking upwards of 70 veterans, their spouses and children out on East Matagorda Bay — has become a conduit to survival for hundreds of soldiers and veterans who found their way to Sargent over the past 10-years. Some of the soldiers are missing limbs. Some cannot fish while sitting or standing directly in the sun, a result of ultra sensitive skin from burn wounds. Some bring guide dogs onto boats, to help them sit and stand. Some have balance and short-term memory issues as a result of severe head wounds.
Yet they compete, laugh and realize they have friends in Sargent.
The entirety of the event is volunteer. From the biker organizations that escort the truckloads of veterans arriving from military hospitals at various places across the country, to each guide that takes soldiers fishing, it is all volunteer. They donate rods, reels, food, drink and their expertise trying to catch speckled trout, redfish and flounder.
Residents host veterans in their homes. Restaurants feed them every meal for the entirety of the weekend. Families line FM 457 on the way into Sargent as the veterans arrive, placing miniature American Flags on the road along the way. Residents and weekend residents volunteer to cook, clean, solicit sponsorships, donate items to auction and help organize the three-day event.
From the seed of an idea that began with four soldiers arriving to go on a fishing trip 10-years ago, today the Tournament Of Heroes features a Friday night dinner and party, dozens of volunteer captains guiding soldiers and their families and a Saturday night party at the VFW Hall that raises thousands of dollars, so they can do it again next year.
Next year, more soldiers will arrive. They’ll have spaghetti dinners, barbecues, a few beers and go fishing. And by the time the weekend is done, they’ll realize the magic of this special anonymous place called Sargent. On the end of that fishing line pulling drag is much more than just a fat redfish. There’s hope.