On Memorial Day: Thank You for Your Service - The Fisherman

On Memorial Day: Thank You for Your Service

Group of senior citizens in wheelchair from the Sacred Heart Nursing Home enjoying fishing off a pier
Senior citizens from the Sacred Heart Nursing Home enjoy a day in the sun, fishing off a local fishing pier during its annual summer outing.

Consider taking a veteran fishing to show your appreciation for their sacrifice.

During the Memorial Day holiday each year, thoughts turn to our military members and those who were lost while serving to protect our country. As a US Navy veteran, I never really know how to respond when someone “thanks” me for my service. During my lifetime, the sentiment is relatively new, taking root sometime within the last 30 years or so. What this has to do with fishing and outdoor recreation however, will become clear as you read further. But first, a little history. During the mid-1980s I served in the US naval submarine force during the apex of the Cold War (The “forgotten war” where veteran’s benefits are concerned.) Back then Americans weren’t quite sure how to treat their active service members and war veterans. In some circles, there was still a bit of a stigma attached to the military, depending on your own personal point of view. Those who protested the Vietnam War in the late 1960s treated their veterans horribly when they returned from active duty. As the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s, popular opinion began to shift as chilling wartime experiences and deep-rooted sentiments of Vietnam War veterans became more widely exposed via print media, TV, and movies. At the time, our country lived with the daily fear of being nuked out of existence (into a Mad Max sequel) by what was commonly perceived as “an evil Soviet communist empire intent on conquering the world,” (who in turn were terrified by the prospect of a gluttonous capitalist America taking over the world, which was closer to the truth than anyone knew).

Submarine memorial on the banks of the Cape Cod Canal
The submarine memorial, standing watch on the banks of the Cape Cod Canal, commemorates World War Two submarine sailors lost at sea (“still on patrol”) while serving our country.

As far as average American citizens were concerned, some openly wondered whether the military was the reason we were all still free or the reason why we lived in fear of Soviet attack. As a young, inconsequential IC petty officer on a nuclear attack submarine, I served much of my time beneath the ocean, seeking contact with our Soviet military rivals. Beloved outdoor activities such as fishing were put on hold, which was especially frustrating while standing topside watch as surface-breaking fish were feeding under the lights all around the pier. There was no internet of course, so my exposure to recreational fishing was limited to outdoor magazine subscriptions. At night in my bunk I could only dream of fishing. If events went just a little sideways on us, we all could have lost our lives in service to our country. But none of us really thought of it that way. Since we all had secret clearances to serve on a submarine, we were forbidden from talking about any of our undertakings, about where we were or what we were doing. Thus, the American public really had no idea what was going on behind the big blue and gold naval curtain. Whenever I was on shore leave, I was greeted by civilians at home and abroad with a variety of different attitudes ranging from good to bad to indifferent. However, I was never actually “thanked” for my service, nor did the concept ever really occur to me. The simple fact is, when I turned 18 I needed an education and a trade, and my parents were dirt poor and supporting five growing children; pretty simple equation there.

Soon after I was discharged from the Navy (and reintroducing myself to my beloved fishing passion), public opinion began to sway once more. This was around the time of the (first) Gulf War. American citizens watched the whole spectacle live on CNN cable television 24/7 for the first time in human history. To those of us watching at home it looked like a video game. An allied rout in Kuwait ensued, which helped American attitudes swing toward outward support of military members. It was almost as if America was appeasing a guilty conscience from 20 years earlier. Suddenly, for the first time since WW-II, it was cool to be a military service veteran again (Historically speaking, Americans didn’t quite know how to react to the Korea war, which ended in a ceasefire that’s still in effect today. Americans don’t like draws.). Then September 11, 2001 came along and the whole world changed. From the ashes came Afghanistan, and then Iraq. Americans came to appreciate active duty military and service veterans with genuine enthusiasm. Now we have military appreciation nights at local sporting events and earnest civilians thanking us for our service in our homes and on the streets. Here in the present, as a US Navy veteran, every Memorial Day I’m compelled to reflect on my time in military service. The realities of active duty service demand that you be away from home and family, while many of your beloved outdoor activities are put on hold. I’m reminded of the many hours and days — while both ashore and at sea — when I desperately longed to be on a tranquil forested riverbank or a remote sandy shoreline with rod and reel in hand, instead of manning whatever military watch station I was assigned to that particular day. Now I cherish every moment spent pursuing my peaceful passion in the great outdoors. Accordingly, I make every effort to go fishing on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day just as a matter of course, honoring those long, lonely days of military obligation, served by a young man I no longer recognize.

A pocket camera photo, shot by the author in November 1985, as the 637 class fast attack nuclear submarine
A pocket camera photo, shot by the author in November 1985, as the 637 class fast attack nuclear submarine transits the Panama Canal escorted by a pair of US Marine gunboats.

So with the Memorial Day holiday upon us this year, if you’re wondering how you can thank a military member for their service, consider taking them fishing. Every summer, for example, I volunteer one day a year and join my colleague, friend, and fellow outdoor writer Marc Folco and help a local nursing home’s Activities Department take some of their senior residents out fishing. Most of the seniors are confined to wheelchairs. All the fishing tackle and gear is donated by generous everyday anglers like you. Each year the trip includes several elderly veterans from just about every armed conflict of the 20th century. Some of the war stories they’ve told me about their time in service are as fascinating as they are heartbreaking. Yet, in just that one day I am genuinely thanked over and over again by grateful senior citizens all throughout the day — more times in one day than in any other capacity in daily life all year long. These folks truly do appreciate the time spent outdoors deep in their hearts. So the point is, if you really want to thank a veteran for his or her service, past or present, consider taking them fishing. It will be as rewarding to you as it is appreciated by them.

*Author’s note: For a riveting account of covert submarine service during the cold war, watch the video documentary The Silent Service, and/or read the book Blind Man’s Bluff by Sherry Sontag.

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