By Staff Sgt. Meillettis Patton
Fort Polk – On March 15 and 16, Fort Polk MWR, Better Opportunity For Single Soldiers and the 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade sponsored the 1st Annual Fishing For Freedom Bass Fishing Tournament at Toledo Bend for Wounded Warriors and active duty soldiers.
Fishing For Freedom is a celebration of two things: American freedom and those who provide that freedom. Bringing this tournament to Fort Polk was a personal goal for Maj. Michael (Mike) Rasco, logistics officer for Headquarters and Headquarter Company, 1st MEB. He participated in last year's Fishing For Freedom tournament in Warsaw, Mo., and had a vision to bring the tournament closer to his home base of Fort Polk.
Although Maj. Rasco got the ball rolling, he was not alone in his quest for Fort Polk to host it's first Fishing For Freedom Bass Tournament. Tea Burns and her husband, Scott Burns, of Kilgore, Texas, also participated in the Warsaw Mo., Fishing For Freedom tournament in 2011 as a volunteer boater. Mrs. Tea did registration duties for the tournament while her husband took soldiers out on their boat.
Everything about Tea Burns personified her love of fishing. She wore bass-fish-hooked earrings, bass-fish necklace, and her silver bracelet dangled with fish bait of different shapes and types. Tea spoke with passion as she described the first time she and her husband volunteered to join Fishing for Freedom.
"The look of gratefulness got to my heart and made me want to do more," said Tea Burns. "I want to put on a (tournament) in our area. "We got all these lakes in East Texas," said Tea burns. "We could do this. Then Maj. Rasco came up last year and got the same bug, and said let's do this. He is a mover and shaker."
"This is our inaugural year," said Tea. "Our dream is to have 80 soldiers and 80 volunteer boaters, it is a way to give back to the soldiers. Let these guys get on the water for a day and enjoy what God has given us."
The event is possible because of volunteer boaters, local and corporate sponsors, and private donations. All participants were able to receive goodie bags filled with fishing supplies and a T-shirt with the Fishing For Freedom logo on it. Soldiers participating in the event even received a place to stay while at the tournament, thanks to the Ft. Polk MWR and BOSS organizations.
The tournament kicked off on March 15 with registration at the Fort Polk MWR Recreation Center at Toledo Bend Reservoir. The Hickory Smoke House, also a sponsor of the event-catered food on both days of the tournament. The keynote speaker and volunteer boater for the tournament was Mr. Harold Allen, a well known fishermen from the surrounding area. The Bass tournament started early March 16; Volunteer boaters began the process of unloading their boats into the water at five o'clock in the morning.
"I am so excited about the opportunity just to share time with somebody that's willing to do what you guys do," said Doug Nichles a volunteer boater of Moody, Alabama. "I met him (Mike Rasco) eight years ago and fished with him.
"I am a bass fisherman only, fishing guide, and I fish in ten lakes in Central Alabama, said Nichles. The greatest part for me is the personal benefit I have of meeting new people and taking people and teaching them how to fish. I came here to support Maj. Rasco and have the opportunity to fish with a soldier.
Volunteers travel long distances to fish with soldiers. Some soldiers have never been out to this area of Fort Polk, in a boat on the lake or fished before.
"It was a great experience," said Spc. Peter Njau of 46th Engineer Battalion, 1st MEB. "I got to meet new people, (and) enjoyed myself. I am very thankful and appreciative of the time and effort (put into the event). I learned new locations and met new people. I hope to participate in the next event. I will continue to fish on my own time after this experience."
"The best friends I have acquired in life have been through fishing," said Nichles.
"I have fished before," said Private First Class Matthew Kressin of 115th Combat Support Hospital. I had a lot of fun out on the water. If you have never been in a boat or fished this is a great program, I had a wonderful time even though I didn't catch anything.
Lt. Col. Robert McCormick took us out on his fathers boat; they made us feel very welcome. It wasn't like being in the work place, said Kressin. It would be nice to see more people out here if someone has never fished they should come out and try it.
The Tournament includes about 40 volunteer boaters and 50 soldiers this year. The soldiers were paired with volunteer boaters then released to coast the waves and catch some fish on Toledo Bend. Prizes were given away in the three categories: the biggest fish and the heaviest weight of fish and trash fish which is the smallest bass or other type of fish caught.
It has been absolutely amazing. "It's going to kill my soul if one soldier is left standing on the bank," said Tea Burns.