by Charles McGuigan
It’s kind of disturbing that the people who send young American men and young women into war zones have, for the most part, never served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Nor have their children or grandchildren. Veterans today make up just twenty percent of the Senate, and under eighteen percent of the House of Representatives. Our sitting president evaded the draft on at least five occasions during the Vietnam War. And none of his children ever served a single day for their country, probably never will either—they’re too busy making money. And pissing it away on worthless crap. I’ve often thought that a law should require members of Congress and the executive branch who vote in favor of war to first enlist themselves, and then offer up their family members to serve in the looming conflict. If they fail to do either of these things, they should not be able to vote, nor, in the case of the president, send troops into battle without an official declaration of declaration. There would be far fewer wars, and many less casualties.
This is what I’m thinking as I pull into the parking lot at Osborne Landing, tires crunching through the gravel. It’s not yet eleven in the morning, but with the sun hammering the earth like an anvil, the temperature is already above ninety. Humidity so thick you gulp air like a fish.
There are a number of men, and a few women, fishing from the pier, and bass boats race up and down the wide, mud-brown water, sprouting rooster tails. This is the third day of the Old Dominion Brawl, part of the Paralyzed Veterans Bass Tour, which each year wends its way through eight states between October and June.
Dan Watkins is on the pier, watching the taut monofilament lines of two anglers whose rods are slightly bowed, dipping toward the murky water of the James River where anything might lurk beneath the surface.
“I belong to the mid-Atlantic Paralyzed Veterans of American (PVA), and I’ve been a member since the eighties,” Dan tells me. “I’m retired from the VA.”
When the tip of one of the rods flicks several times, Dan yells, “You got one.” All three men are in wheelchairs. The lucky angler reels in his catch. It’s just a blue gill—palm-sized—but still they keep it because this part of the competition is for weight and numbers caught.
Dan served in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Vietnam War. He commanded an explosive loading team whose mission was to pick up bombs and other ammunition from Yorktown on the East Coast, and Alameda on the West Coast, and haul that explosive cargo over to Southeast Asia where it was carefully unloaded. During his service years, a Jeep rolled over on him and crushed his spinal column, paralyzing him from the waist down. That was many years ago, a lifetime back.
After that injury, Dan began rehab at McGuire VA Medical Center here in Richmond, and returned to school at Virginia Commonwealth University. With a business degree in hand and his safety background from the USCG, he landed a job as safety manager with McGuire, a position he held for nine years before returning to his native North Carolina where he went to work at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. He stayed there until retirement.
It was not long after his injury that Dan joined the PVA.
“The first time I got involved with them was a deer hunt and the confidence it gave me, and the ability to do more and more things, was greater than any of my rehab,” says Dan. “You recognize that you can go places, do things. You may have to do them differently, but you can accomplish the same types of things, and enjoy your passion for the outdoors.”
The PVA was formed in 1947, and the mid-Atlantic chapter based in Richmond was one of the six original chapters of the organization.
“The first events were wheelchair races, and then they branched off from that to other sporting activities,” Dan says. “I think the first bass tournaments were in Florida in the early nineties.”
Jennifer Purser, executive director of the PVA’s mid-Atlantic chapter, is running constantly between the pier and a refrigerated trailer and a canopy that makes shade over rows of tables and folding chairs. She’s coordinating things, checking the time, making sure the barbeque is ready to be served, and getting cold water to the more than fifty parched anglers participating in this year’s event. There are some twenty-five volunteers who help her out, along with her assistant, Tyler Barnes, who is a blur of activity.
“When you’re one full-time employee, and you have only one part-time employee, which is Tyler,” says Jennifer. “Well, we do everything that a team of ten people would do. We cover all of Virginia and most of North Carolina. And we’re housed in that little office out in Midlothian. We have five VA medical centers that we watch over—Hampton Roads, Roanoke, Fayetteville, Durham and Richmond.”
It was less than a decade ago that Jennifer began heading up the APV, and the work has been non-stop ever since. “We spent the last seven years knocking down doors and creating great partnerships,” she says.
Tyler Barnes assists Jennifer Purser (seen in the background).
“We work with Home Depot several times a years. They do typically three to four adaptions on a home for us every year. Nothing where they have to move walls, but they’ll go in and doing flooring and painting and make sure thresholds are okay. Build a ramp, if needed. We’re putting an elevator in for a veteran because he lives in a house where he can’t get upstairs.”
And the professional rewards from the job are innumerable. “I get to make a difference in somebody’s life almost every day,” Jennifer says. “We get to do great sporting events like the Old Dominion Brawl. But we’re also adapting homes, we’re paying mortgages, so I get to see a lot of people live healthy and productive lives. If we have someone who needs a widening of a bathroom door, or a ramp put on, we partner with several people and get the job done.”
Last night, during the awards ceremony for the first day of the tournament, as Jennifer stood at a podium, her mouth trained on a mic, tears filled her eyes and streamed down her face, and her throat thickened as she spoke. “I was thinking about our first tournament four years ago,” she tells me. “We had one sponsor, and that was Bojangles, and they still give us money and they give us food. That first year we had to put on the tournament for twelve thousand dollars. This year we have twenty-seven sponsors, and it cost twenty-eight thousand dollars to put it on.”
It’s close to two in the afternoon now, and when we leave the partial shade of the canopy a wave of heat slaps us like the exhalation of a blast furnace. The boats are arriving steadily now. They’d left before sun up at quarter to five that morning. Trucks pull up from the ramp toting trailers with their boats fresh out of the drink, dripping river water. A man named Catfish—a stalwart advocate for the PVA, who may or may not have a last name—begins weighing the catches, five bass per boat. A number of the fish exceed four pounds, and they are all alive and well, and will be released later by Department of Game and Inland Fisheries volunteers who immediately drop the fish into holding tanks.
“I’ll tell you what’s great about all this,” says Jennifer. “We have a lot of people fishing who haven’t done it before, and so they get to see people with like disabilities who experience fishing, and it keeps them motivated to fish.”
She mentions the winner of the boat competition during yesterday’s tournament. “She was one of our lady veterans and she’s fished it on the bank but hadn’t gone out on a boat before, and she just killed it yesterday and won,” Jennifer says. “She had a bass that was almost five pounds, and then she had almost fourteen pounds of fish, total weight. Here name’s Kathy Tilbury and she goes to wheelchair games, she hunts with these guys. It was nice to see it happen, just the joy on her face.”
Joy spreads across Jennifer Purser’s face. “It’s all about the understanding,” she says. “You have to see it. Even if it’s not the bass fishing tournament, see our car show, talk to a veteran about the wheelchair games. And it’s not just about sports. Come see a wheelchair ramp being built, and that veteran crying because you’ve made their life so much easier. That’s what it’s about.
Interested in donating time, money, services, or materials? Contact Jennifer or Tyler at (804)378-0017 or visit http://www.pvamidatlantic.org/