Lake Ice USA hooked on helping Soldiers
May 3, 2010
FORT CARSON, Colo.---When Bill Miller looks at Soldiers returning home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he thinks of his return from Vietnam. He recalls coming home from war unceremoniously, feeling most of the country was either against or ambivalent to his military service and thinking that the Veterans Administration (now known as Veterans Affairs) was ill prepared to care for the physical and psychological wounds Soldiers faced.
Miller wanted to help provide Fort Carson Soldiers with a better environment than the one to which he returned. He is a managing member and guide for Lake Ice U.S.A., a nonprofit organization founded to provide fishing adventures for the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Carson and wounded servicemembers from all branches.
"Fishing is a great way to cause positive interactions between the Soldiers and between individuals and the great Rocky Mountain region," Miller said.
Miller's goal for the Soldiers on these trips is simple: have fun. He said that he and partner Dave Bryant also want the Soldiers to learn how to fish and to enjoy an outdoor space big enough to make them feel far from the stresses of everyday life and their transition process.
"I just want them to feel free of daily burdens and appointments," Miller said.
"Our goal is to put smiles on faces and let the Soldiers just 'hang out,' said Bryant. "We are there to assist with anything they need. We hope these Soldiers want to get out and develop a passion for the outdoors."
Sgt. Gavin Sibayan, Company A, WTB, said trips are relaxing.
"They are a great day off post and away from everything," Sibayan said. "The fishing is fun, lunch is good and it's great to hang out."
Lake Ice U.S.A. has access to several public and private lakes around Colorado. This allows the organization to facilitate adventures from open water fishing to ice fishing. To date, Soldiers have fished at Lower Lake Ranch, Lake Leehow at Chatfield State Park and Monument Lake.
"Open water fishing provides the luxury of moving around the lake to find the perfect spot for fishing," Miller said. "They can find a spot where no one is fishing, talk to a buddy or just watch the clouds go by.
"Ice fishing is more challenging, as they have to wear warm clothing and waterproof boots, learn how to jig, drop shot, use the proper bait, keep the ice from forming in the hole, set the hook, and set the reel-drag to land the fish."
When they are ice fishing, the Soldiers don't have to worry about things, like drilling the holes, and bringing ice rods and reels, bait and fish detectors, thanks to Miller and Bryant. They also offer instruction to the Soldiers on every aspect of ice fishing and provide tents and seats to keep them comfortable.
"Our goal is to put them on fish and drill as many holes in the ice until fish are caught and found," Miller said. "Catching fish is the focus of the day."
Bryant said the Soldiers enjoy ice fishing because it presents a new challenge.
"I think each Soldier has turned ice fishing into not only a new passion, but a place to open up," Bryant said. "I remember once a small group started enjoying each other's company and telling all kinds of stories. Some were not worried about the fishing at all."
At a recent ice fishing trip at Monument Lake, former Denver Bronco wide receiver and three-time Pro Bowl selectee Rod Smith joined the Soldiers. It was Smith's first ice fishing trip and only the second time he'd ever been fishing.
"Anytime you can help the people who protect us, there's nothing you can do that can go wrong with that," Smith said. "They called me about it, and I was like, 'I'm there.'"
Smith's appearance nearly made the Soldiers forget about fishing.
"Rod got introduced and that was so cool," Sibayan said. "I'm a big Broncos fan. The morning was perfect."
For Sgt. Enrique Diaz, Company A, WTB, the day was made more special by Smith's joining the group to fish.
"I was enjoying sitting there just fishing, but when Smith showed up, I thought it even more fun. He really made the day special," Diaz said.
Smith said that catching touchdowns was easier than catching fish.
I've caught two fish in my entire life," Smith said. "I've dropped more touchdowns than fish I've caught. Football was definitely easier than this."
Both Sibayan and Diaz said they want to go ice fishing again, with both having success catching fish. Sibayan caught 10 fish, and Diaz hooked six, taking four of them home to smoke.
Miller said he is gratified when all the Soldiers who fish with Lake Ice U.S.A. have a positive experience.
"It is very interesting to watch how fast they come together and how by the end of the day everyone is energized with fun, and they are competing to see who can catch the biggest fish or the most fish," he said. "It is gratifying to know they now have a positive experience to add to their lives and hopefully they'll never forget the trip."
Miller and Bryant said they hope to continue to expand the program and offer more fishing activities to wounded warriors and their Families. Bryant says he never wants to turn down a Soldier, veteran or Family member.
"We will only say 'yes,'" Bryant said. "No Soldier or Family member should ever be forgotten. I take for granted my freedom and health, and I am very lucky to be able to share my time with these Soldiers and Families."
For Miller, he knows that the fishing is therapeutic and wants every Soldier to have the experience of learning to fish.
"We've seen, firsthand, the therapeutic results from catching fish, and there is a surprising delight in hooking and landing a fish," Miller said. "Fishing and viewing the surrounding landscape can set the mind free for a short while."