By Cheryl RodewigSeptember 5, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Sept. 5, 2012) -- Eleven of Fort Benning's wounded warriors returned from a weekend fishing trip with more than just several pounds of bass. During the three-day outing on Lake Lanier, they developed closer friendships, stronger self-esteem and a brighter outlook on life -- all tools in building individual resilience.
"After something like this, you're in a more positive state of mind," said Sgt. Sean Baptiste, attached to B Company, Warrior Transition Battalion, since April 2010. "This fishing trip is really one of the first things I have done outside of Fort Benning. So much stress has been lifted off my shoulders today -- it's exhilarating."
Baptiste was working on the turret of a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, during his second tour in Iraq when he was wounded.
"We were on a combat mission," he said. "An [improvised explosive device] detonated and blew me 35 feet off the top of that MRAP, and I landed on a concrete T-barrier. I didn't know it at the time, but I broke my back. I didn't find that out till four months later. That's when they sent me to Fort Benning."
Because of his injuries, Baptiste wasn't able to continue on active duty. The daily routine at the WTB, appointments, surgeries, physical pain, being away from his wife, and knowing that his military career was coming to a close were all challenges for the noncommissioned officer.
"I was really saddened at first when I was told they're going to medically retire me, because I love to serve," he said. "That's why I re-enlisted. I wanted to do my part. I was taking it really hard for a while. In my situation, I'm in pain all the time. And it's depressing being away from family. It wore me down so much to the point that in December, I tried to take my life."
He was rushed to the hospital and given lifesaving care, and today, Baptiste is far from where he was a year ago. Getting out of his room and reconnecting with others, as he did on the fishing trip, has helped him move forward, he said.
"A lot of my memories of being (overseas) are not very good," he said, "so to have memories like this take over some of those other memories that aren't healthy -- it's definitely a good thing."
The outing was sponsored by the Georgia chapter of Safari Club International. The nonprofit organization, established to promote hunters' rights, regularly funds fishing trips for wounded warriors from Fort Benning. Usually held at Lake Lanier or Destin, Fla., the all-expenses-paid excursions are a "thank you" to veterans and families for their sacrifices.
Vietnam veteran Dick Caillouet, a board member who joined the warriors for the weekend Aug. 24-26, estimates that SCI has taken more than 50 WTB Soldiers fishing since 2008.
"We're a conservation organization, but we're also humanitarian," he said. "A lot of the folks involved with this are former military as well. We can't do enough for the Soldiers and their families. We show them that we love them and we care for them; we're not just talking about it. I get feedback from these veterans consistently that we're really helping, changing people's lives. It's powerful."
Capt. Lisa Maree Stephens said she appreciated SCI providing the weekend away.
"To have organizations that still remember us and are still thankful for what we've done is a really good thing. You don't have it everywhere," she said.
Stephens said the relaxation offered during the fishing trip gave her tools she could use "for a lifetime."
"This is very therapeutic for me," she said. "I think that's part of the healing process, to be able to step away from that military environment. When the body breaks down, it breaks down some of the other areas as well, so as you heal you have to heal everything; you can't just heal the body. And with the combat deployments, you end up with the mind and soul being very damaged, even if the body isn't. To heal that, it's just as important as healing your body."
Stephens left for the outing exactly one year from the day she first joined the WTB. She had never been out on the water to fish before, but she caught one of the largest bass of the trip, weighing more than 10 pounds.
Wounded in Kuwait in 2011, Stephens is in the process of medically retiring. Others on the trip will transition to civilian jobs or return to active duty after rehabilitation.
"It's all about transitions," said retired Master Sgt. Patrick Harmon, whose final day on active-duty status at the WTB was last week.
Harmon, who helped coordinate the trip, said a getaway like the one SCI provided is a practical way to strengthen a wounded veteran's inner resilience.
"The connection to resilience is bonding, understanding their needs and emotions, and knowing that society cares that regardless of what they're going through, there's someone who cares about them who will assist them in that road to recovery," he said.
"Programs like this will benefit the Soldier at heart. We're seeing smiles that I haven't seen for the last year. I think the civilian community, the WTB and America as a whole should continue to do whatever it can for these Soldiers to make sure they're not forgotten and continue to build their esprit de corps, so we don't lose Soldiers to suicide. It makes all the difference."