Wounded Warriors land at Lobo

United Methodist Men among those helping with disabled veterans’ fishing trip for third year running

By Will Gilbert
The Sun-Times

HEBER SPRINGS—Less than 30 seconds after the anchors plunged to the bottom of the Little Red River, Arkansas Freedom Fund member and U.S. Army veteran Pam Griffin shouted ‘Got one’ with a huge smile.

That catch served as a prelude to a day filled with joy for the 67 veterans gathered at Lobo Landing outside Heber Springs for the 3rd Annual Wounded Warriors fishing program, which was made possible by a joint effort by the United Methodist Men, the Arkansas Freedom Fund, Arkansas Game and Fish, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 15 local businesses and 15 area guides.

U.S. Army veteran Randy Hays caught three trout, including this rainbow on the morning of Thursday, July 9, during the Wounded Warriors guided fishing trip on the Little Red River. PHOTOS BY WILL GILBERT / THE SUN-TIMES

U.S. Army veteran Randy Hays caught three trout, including this rainbow on the morning of Thursday, July 9, during the Wounded Warriors guided fishing trip on the Little Red River.
PHOTOS BY WILL GILBERT / THE SUN-TIMES

Not long after Griffin’s catch veteran Randy Hays, confined to a wheelchair in the back of guide Jerry Poplin’s pontoon boat, began wearing them out, catching two rainbow trout and one ‘cutbow’ in a span of 25 minutes.

Meanwhile back in the front of the boat, veteran Linda Jones of Little Rock was eager to net her first fish in her lifetime. A little quick with the trigger, she missed a couple before landing her first fish with a smile that would light up a room.

Over the next hour, Jones caught two more, kissed one and continued smiling throughout her hour and a half on Poplin’s boat. “I think it was a lot of fun,” said Linda. “I enjoyed catching the fish and giving them back was the main part. Throwing them back … I don’t want to kill nothin’ and eat it. They had that nice pink color.”

At 9:30 a.m. it was time to head back to the dock and pick up another group of veterans, who had already hooked a few trout from the Lobo dock. Over the next hour and a half, Vietnam veteran Robert Bryant, originally from Tulsa, said, “I fish all the time, catfish, bass all that but I’ve never been on a boat.” Bryant landed five trout over the next hour and a half.

In the back of Poplin’s pontoon a competition broke out between veteran Tony Ray, who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Persian Gulf veteran Lennel Woods and North Little Rock Fort Roots VA worker Jeff Chatman. Ray and Chatman each caught five trout.

“This gives me a chance to relax my mind,” said Ray. “Takes my mind off my troubles. I want to thank everyone for giving us a chance to get away.”

After landing nearly 30 trout in three hours, Poplin revved up the motor to head back to the dock beaming from ear to ear. “It’s a blessing to watch them relax for a little bit and get away from where they are at. To get away from their problems is a blessing.”

Poplin’s crew caught nearly twice the amount of fish as last year, but he said the outing is about much more than total fish landed. “When these guys are having this much fun I don’t go by how many fish they catch. I go by how they feel and how they act. Catching fish is the second most important thing. To see them relax and enjoy themselves… That is what you are really after.”

Bobby Woodall, pastor at Wilburn Community Church, helped Poplin keep the hooks baited throughout the morning. “It was my first time out with the Wounded Warriors and it was truly a blessing to be a small part of what they have done and giving back to them is just an awesome experience. I enjoyed it.

“Just to see the smiles on their face and the joy when they are out there catching the fish. I just enjoyed seeing them laughing and having a good time. I appreciate what they’ve done for our country and to give a little back… this is special,” stressed Woodall.

Upon arrival back at the dock, the guides convened to tell their stories of a successful outing. Larry Case, who lives in Hernando, Mississippi and calls Heber Springs his second home, made the 152-mile trek to lend a hand.

“We didn’t see as many physically disabled as we did last year but they don’t get out much and many have never trout fished,” said Case. “It was a pleasure to get them going, see them catch a few fish, enjoy themselves and get out of the hospital room for a while.”

Guide Doug Pearce of Pangburn echoed Case’s sentiment. “It’s absolutely the greatest thing that has ever happened. For what these guys have given to us it’s the least we can do to give back to them. To watch some of these guys who aren’t able to get out, let alone go fishing, to watch them catch fish is nothing but smiles and you know you are doing a good thing when you see that. I watched 30-40 fish get caught.”

New Lobo Landing Owner Alicia Abrahamson said it was an incredible way to officially re-open the resort. “I think this program is amazing and we need continue to do it every year. I’ve seen a lot of excited faces today pulling those fish in. And to me that is just a drop in the bucket to help them out.”

Lloyd Langston of the United Methodist Men of First UMC Heber Springs cooks breakfast the morning of the Wounded Warriors guided fishing trip, the third annual of these events that the group has supported.

Lloyd Langston of the United Methodist Men of First UMC Heber Springs cooks breakfast the morning of the Wounded Warriors guided fishing trip, the third annual of these events that the group has supported.

Although the majority of the veterans who came this year were not physically disabled, Mark Douglas of the Fort Roots VA Hospital in North Little Rock said the 35 former soldiers he brought all have mental health issues.

“As recreational therapists it’s good to get out in the community. These guys have PTSD (Post Tramatic Stress Disorder). This is a wonderful opportunity to get them out with other veterans. I work with them on their addictions and depression. Some of them have never been fishing or even been in a boat,” added Douglas as he munched on a breakfast prepared by the United Methodist Men.

Mark Leonard, Director of the Arkansas Freedom Fund, said this is one of the many activities offered throughout the year. “This is just an awesome experience. This is the third year the Methodist Men have come out here and we’ve expanded from bringing the Arkansas Freedom fund, plus patients at the VA to give veterans of Arkansas a chance to get outdoors. This is one of the premier ones that we do.

“We also offer cycling, hunting, martial arts, hiking, golf programs and then the one here as you can tell by the numbers is just great. The guys love getting out of the hospital for a day,” added Leonard.

John Pickell, President of the United Methodist Men, heads up the program by raising funds from various businesses in Heber Springs. “We want to do something kinda different. Some of these folks have been in the VA hospital for a long time. The first year we did this we had a guy here who said he hadn’t been outside in two years. It means a lot, especially to the ones who have been cooped up or they are recuperating. We wanted a different way to say thank you to them,” Pickell concluded.

While eating a hamburger prepared by the local Pack 200 Cub scout troop, Poplin, a Blytheville native who has made a living as a guide on the Little Red for the past 22 years, said next year they are hoping to host two fishing trips for the veterans at Lobo Landing. One will be for mental health patients and another for those confined to a wheelchair.

Reproduced with permission of the Sun-Times of Heber Springs, where this story first appeared (www.thesuntimes.com).