Special Forces Week at Nushagak River Adventures Lodge is near and dear to our hearts. Today is Veterans Day—the nationally recognized day to celebrate and honor all military veterans. Considered to be the end of the war to end all wars a century ago, Veterans Day has gone through its fair share of changes—from name and date modifications to who to recognize. To us at Veterans Day is one of the many days to stop and think about the men and women who have dedicated their lives to American freedom.
It’s no surprise we embrace Veterans Day. Our lodge owner served in and retired from the US Army. Pete spent over 22 years serving our country as he moved around the world, up to a year at a time separated from his family, in countries where their beliefs fall far from ours, often times at risk. Other Veterans and their families didn’t have it so easy. Some of them never returned home to their loved ones, and some who did returned changed—physically and mentally.
It can be hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, much less combat boots, but when you stop to think about Veterans Day, you really should think of the hardship some of these folks have endured. Tragically some heroes have fallen, broken by the weight of their burdens, but many have persevered and shine like the stars they are. It’s near impossible to break someone who is cut from the cloth who earned his Green Beret, and that is demonstrated in each and every wounded Special Forces member—the sheer strength and courage it took to become who they are, solidity during training and deployments. This is what we think about when we think about Veterans Day.
In July of 2019, a floatplane carrying several retired members of the U.S. Army Special Forces, (Green Berets), alit at Nushagak River Adventures Lodge marking our treasured Special Forces Week. Their mission was to enjoy the best fishing adventure Alaska can provide. For the last 6 years it has been our privilege to host a group of wounded warriors on the Nushagak River. In 2019, the opportunity continued through the honorable charitable contributions of Warrior Sportsmen Inc (WSI), Special Operators Foundation, and Special Forces Association (SFA) Chapter 62; all 501(c)(3) organizations devised to improve the welfare of the Special Forces community. Generous corporate sponsorships were also made by USfalcon Inc., Walsingham Group Inc., Oakgrove Technology LLC., and Spartan Knives LLC. It’s an amazing gift these heroes are bestowed to visit our lodge in Alaska, not just for the adventure and experience, but also for the therapeutic element time spent here provides.
The 2019 Warrior Heroes pictured with Retired Sergeant Major Ron Baldwin.
“These Warriors are beyond amazing,” Pete von Jess reported, “the circumstances they’ve come through and the way they’ve stood strong, their courage is truly inspirational.” He went on to explain some of them had suffered severe trauma, head injuries and physical impalements that left them relearning to walk, talk, and other basic tasks like doing their laundry or drive. Yet everyday they continue to prove that surrender is not in their vocabulary. They’ve been through substantial hardship and yet they came here to relax, recharge and gain a fresh outlook on life. And while this Special Forces Week experience on The Nush touches their lives, it touches ours too.
Mark Vomund is one of the Special Forces members who was sponsored on this year’s trip. Mark found himself in harm’s way of a roadside bomb that lodged shrapnel into his head affecting his memory, mood, and sleep. He began to experience severe headaches, muscle pain, and hypersensitivity to light and sound. A highly decorated master sergeant who had already earned five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts at his 26-year career peak, was reduced to relearning basic functions. When he arrived home after his injury he could not even remember his family. He was bedridden for 6 months, badly burned, and with serious cognitive issues. For someone so active being immobile feels like a life sentence. He had to do something. The rehab center he worked with made him think about what he did as a kid and he remembered a fly tying class he’d taken, then spent those 6 months tying flies.
Fishing has been part of his recovery as he was the recipient of another military-focused outdoor therapy experience where he had previously fly fished in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. He is enthralled with catching salmon on the Nushagak. “It’s amazing to receive a gift like this,” said Mark, “I want other veterans to experience Alaska. Some get caught up in their routine, they don’t feel comfortable venturing out of their norm, but here you find yourself bonding with a group of similar people you would have never met. Each of us had different disabilities and we just helped each other throughout the week. And to get to experience fishing in Alaska at a place like Pete’s…with their people, they just get it. It was a shot of medicine no doctor could give us.”
Mark was blessed to receive brain surgery at John Hopkins by the surgeon himself who invented the procedure. Mark says without it he would be severely disabled today. Today Mark has taken a step back from the large audience presentations he has given over the years about his experience, a way for him to inspire and help others while healing himself in the process. Now Mark focuses on raising his children, spending time with his wife, and helping other veterans experience time in the outdoors. He has a happy voice and a happy heart. Mark beams as he describes his current adventures racing tandem bikes with fellow famed Special Forces soldier Ivan Castro.
Over the years some of the Green Berets who have participated have been medically separated from service and others are still on active duty. This past year one hero in particular, had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for exceptional valor and intrepid actions above and beyond the call of duty.” Another of the heroes was critically wounded with a gunshot wound through his torso. A third service member lost an eye when a machine gun misfired. A fourth continues to recover from a gunshot to his head, literally a bullet to the brain. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, and completely function again. This summer he was on the Nushagak River landing salmon. It’s miraculous. And there was Mark with his brain injury from the IED encounter. Yet all of these Quiet Professionals were fishing on The Nush this summer.
Ed Petkovich, a retired Special Forces veteran with 23 years of service and founder of corporate sponsor Walsingham Group Inc., was honored to accompany as a chaperone this year. “It’s extraordinary to witness,” Ed observed, “when we first arrived in camp you could feel the apprehension of the warriors, not knowing what to expect. One of the first things they see is the Special Forces regimental insignia flying high on a flag next to the American flag and you note their recognition. They were immediately greeted with warmth, gratitude, and acceptance by Pete and the amazing staff at Nushagak River Adventures Lodge. You could visibly see them relax when they realized how the encounter would unfold. It continued like that through the week. The holistic healing from the whole experience lasts well beyond the duration of the trip.”
Retired Sergeant Major Ron Baldwin spent all 29 years of service in the Special Forces. He’s been a trusted advisor to WSI since the beginning and an advocate for warriors. Ron also accompanied the Green Berets this year as he has in the past. He sees a similar pattern with each group of men as they meet each other in Anchorage and travel to the Alaska Bush together. “The wounded Special Forces men start the week quiet and reserved and as the week goes on the camaraderie grows, while stress, pain, and anxiety slowly leave their faces. They make lifelong friends with men bonded in the brotherhood of Special Forces and their scars.”
This special gift now hangs at the lodge to commemorate this incredible experience shared with our brothers-in-arms.
These men fished, ate five-star meals, told stories, bonded with brothers in arms, relaxed, fished some more, tossed bean bags, sat around the fire, petted Archie the camp dog, and smiled. It was an incredible week for the warriors, escorts, and lodge team. We are already looking forward to sharing this time again next summer with another group of deserving service members.
Retired Command Chief Warrant Officer Doug Frank, Executive Director of Warrior Sportsmen Inc., served for 38 years, including 30 as a Green Beret. Doug has had the pleasure of attending to the heroes during past Special Forces weeks. “The Green Berets’ stories include multiple deployments to the world’s most austere environments to ensure our nation remains secure. The toll that takes on them and their families makes one realize these warriors and their families are true national treasures,” said Doug. “To watch them totally relax and enjoy themselves, maybe for the first time in years, is humbling beyond words.”
It is truly humbling, an honor and privilege to share. In commemoration of this Veterans Day, we offer our deepest gratitude to the Veterans of all US Armed Forces branches, with extra appreciation for the Special Operations Forces whom protect our way of life and liberty while risking their own lives. You are remembered and you are revered. De Oppresso Liber!
We sometimes get asked how to help with our program. If you’d like to contribute towards travel expenses for our sponsored veterans or contribute in anyway you see fit, please contact [email protected]