SMALLWOOD STATE PARK, Md. — The springtime waters of Maryland's Mattawoman Creek summoned memories of the creeks and lakes of Army Spc. Josh Schichtl's hometown of Conway, Ark. — a friendly place far removed from the dust and sand of the Baghdad suburbs, where Schichtl nearly lost his life to a roadside bomb last year.
Schichtl, 26, a soldier since age 18, was on his second tour in Iraq when shrapnel from two improvised explosive devices tore through his vehicle. He suffered severe head and face injuries, losing his right eye and much of his lower jaw.
The gold of the Purple Heart emblem adorning Schichtl's artificial eye reflected the early morning sun as he awaited his boat assignment for the first-ever Wounded Warrior Bass Challenge, staged March 29 near the wide waters of the Potomac River. Even though the targeted species were largemouth bass that would be caught on spinner baits, Schichtl was wearing a favored fishing vest, one sporting a collection of fly fishing gear.
Nearby, Army Sgt. Tim Johannsen finished a cell phone call and gingerly walked on his new legs down the floating boat dock ramp, carefully stepping into the boat of Marine Corps Warrant Officer Bill Griesmeyer, his "boater" partner for the event.
Johannsen, who grew up in an Army family and calls Fort Stewart, Ga., home, lost both legs to an IED in Iraq in 2007.
The soldiers, both undergoing treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, were among nearly 60 wounded warriors participating in the tournament, which paired them with regional bass angling experts and professional fishermen.
When event organizers Capt. Jeremiah Caitlin, an Army chaplain, and Virginia bass fishing guide Ken Kirk announced that experienced bass anglers were needed to support soldiers and Marines for a day of fun and fellowship, the response was overwhelming.
"I even had guys upset with me for scheduling the tournament when there were conflicting events nearly 100 miles away," Kirk explained. "These guys come from all over Virginia and Maryland, donating their time, talent, boats, fuel, rods and reels and more. It means a lot to each of them to be able to help."
Assembling the boaters who'd be teamed with the wounded warriors, Kirk reminded the many die-hard, competitive anglers of their mission. He underscored that, while the goal was to catch fish, having fun, staying safe and creating positive memories is really what it's all about.
"This event is solely about those wounded soldiers and Marines," Kirk said. "They're the one paying the price, the ones who let us be out here enjoying what we do."
The event was a spinoff from a fall bass fishing tourney Caitlin organized on Lake Anna, Va. Top finishers there earned an opportunity to participate in a deer hunt sponsored by a hunt club from the Fredericksburg, Va., area.
An all-day event
The Wounded Warrior Bass Challenge concept was simple: a friendly competition among soldiers and Marines with top finishers getting gear prizes and trophies.
Caitlin opened participation to wounded warriors throughout the region, drawing participants from Fort Meade, Md.; Fort Belvoir and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; and Camp Lejeune, N.C., along with Walter Reed.
Quantico Marines Staff Sgt. Ray Coffey (who got his "bell rung," as he terms it, and suffered shrapnel wounds in Iraq) and Gunnery Sgt. Joe Caputo (who also suffered a head wound and is mostly deaf in his left ear) teamed up with Cpl. Nicholas Hanes.
Caputo, enthusiastic but inexperienced — confessing he hasn't fished since he was 6 — wore a broad grin as he climbed aboard Coffey's boat. In the best spirit of interservice rivalry, he flashed a "thumbs up" and cheered, "Go Marines, beat Army!"
While the wounded warriors were out fishing, Ranger Patrick Bright and his crew with the Maryland Park Service staged a fishing derby for the service members' spouses and children.
One soldier, Staff Sgt. Jason Letterman, a double amputee in a wheelchair, declined an opportunity to fish in the tournament from a boat, opting instead to spend the day at the fishing pier with his wife, Elena, and their two young boys — Daniel, 10, and Alex, 4. The tournament boaters hadn't left sight of the marina before Daniel was battling a largemouth bass he caught at the boat ramp.
After proudly showing Dad his catch, he released the fish.
Boats returned for a 2 p.m. weigh-in. Most anglers were successful, with several participants weighing five-bass limits. All fish were released after being weighed.
Schichtl and Johannsen caught just one keeper fish (more than 15 inches long) each. Experienced fishermen, they took it in stride.
"I'll fish all day," artilleryman Johannsen said, adding that he thought he and his new legs performed well from the bass boat's fishing platform. He plans on staying in the Army and is anxiously awaiting his medical board.
Schichtl, who has equilibrium problems from his injuries, said his boat's rocking in the wakes caused by other boats created challenges.
He began the morning fishing from one of the boat's pedestal seats, he said, but his teammates "had to grab me by the shirt a couple times to keep me from falling." He eventually moved to the center of the boat near the operator's console, where he could more easily steady himself.
The team of Dan Jeffert and retired Marine 1st Sgt. Jamie Andries claimed the top prize for the heaviest total catch of fish with 15 pounds, 8 ounces.
Gunnery Sgt. Fletcher Veitch and his boater, Dale Benware of Spotsylvania, Va., claimed the award for the lunker fish of the day with a 6-pound, 2-ounce largemouth.
Caitlin, sunburned and exhausted by the day's end, tried to work down a few forkfuls of pork barbecue between fielding questions and directing the logistics teardown of the event.
He said successfully wrapping up the long day lifted a personal weight from his shoulders, then segued to his true end-game goal.
"There's nothing like getting these guys out on the water and seeing them smile. I bet, at least for the time they were here, not one of them had thoughts or worries about their next surgery or their treatments. That is an accomplishment," he said.
Schichtl was "amazed" at the number of people who came to support him and his fellow wounded warriors, he said.
"It blows me away, makes me so proud," he said.
Wounded Warrior Bass Challenge results
Place, service member/boater, weight
1. Marine 1st Sgt. Jamie Andries/Dan Jeffert, 15.82 pounds.
2. Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Julian/Randy Scott, 15.15.
3. Marine Fletcher Veitch/Dale Benware, 13.26.
4. Army Spc. Max Poyer/Randy Quesenberry, 13.14.
5. Marine Sgt. Tim Johannsen/Gary Griffin, 13.12.
6. Army Staff Sgt. R.J. Thormann/Lisa Walker, 12.10.
7. Marine Staff Sgt. Ray Coffey/Nicholas Hanes, 11.80.
8. Army Staff Sgt. Ron Isom/Andrew Campbell, 11.16.
9. Army Col. Lisa Black/Clifford Magnus, 11.04.
10. Retired Army Capt. Ralph Krulder/Jake Cornwell, 10.12.