A Veterans Day Fishing Story: Purple Heart Anglers’ Return To Alaska

Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where it all started. Photo by Chris Cocoles

Veterans Day means a lot to all of us. My dad, the late Stanley Cocoles, proudly served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and just about all of us have some kind of family or friend connection who served in the armed forces.

Stanley Cocoles (left), petty officer in the United States Navy.

Thank you to all the veterans, from George Washington’s brutal winter in Valley Forge through my dad and those who are serving today to preserve our freedom. And thanks to non-vets like Randy Houston, whose Purple Heart Anglers nonprofit organization returned to Alaska for an adventure of fishing and brotherhood.

Here’s the story that’s running this month in our sister publication, California Sportsman (we’ll run a slightly different version in an upcoming issue of ASJ):

Photos by Purple Heart Anglers

By Chris Cocoles

It never gets old for 72-year-old Randy Houston, whose Bay Area-based Purple Heart Anglers this fall continued a tradition of raising money to send disabled veterans on fishing and hunting adventures.

In October, Houston and his charity got several wounded warriors who served in various combat tours during American wars on a memorable salmon fishing trip to Ketchikan, Alaska.

“This was our eighth trip and we had 12 total this year,” Houston said of this latest visit to the Last Frontier, a tally that included himself, veterans and volunteers who were on hand to help out.

“It’s a great trip. The vets, they just have a blast. It’s emotional, but at the same time it’s a lot of fun. We had several up there who had never been to Alaska. And some of them had never caught a salmon before. Firsts and firsts.”

In all, the vets brought home about 34 pounds of salmon fillets apiece “for them, their families and their friends,” Houston said. But as most of these journeys have gone during Purple Heart Anglers’ near-decade of existence, it’s a whole lot more than just catching fish.

“It’s such a broad range of (emotions). My wife calls it calm exhilaration,” said Houston, who started Purple Heart Anglers back in the early 2010s to honor his late brother Jerry, who earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for Valor in Vietnam (California Sportsman, May 2014).

“When it started out years ago, people asked why I do what I do, and I said I wanted to do something with my brother, and it has just morphed into what it is. And over the years we’ve now had over 3,000 disabled vets out, and that doesn’t even include their families and all the volunteers who have gotten out with us. Now I do it because it needs to be done.”

Purple Heart Anglers founder Randy Houston.

It’s been quite a ride for all involved. The emotions have been at high levels for the wounded vets who gathered for the trips. Houston said many of the stories he’s heard are not prudent to print, and while Purple Heart Anglers prides itself on the notions that “We don’t do politics and we don’t do therapy,” Houston embraces the importance of helping bring these brave men and women a sense of normalcy and peace after they sacrificed so much in battle.

“To see the vets up there enjoying the country that they served and protected, and being able to give them an opportunity to do that, (it’s special) to see the looks on their faces,” Houston said, also understanding that as the years have gone by he’s had to say painful goodbyes. “On the way back I was talking to one of our volunteers and I looked up the photos that I’ve got from the past, and we’ve probably lost 10 (people) who have passed away.”

But for many of them, this Alaska trip and all the other fishing and hunting adventures have provided memories for everyone who participated in or helped pave the way for the excursions.

Houston is based in the Bay Area coastal community of Half Moon Bay, but he plans to relocate to Oregon soon. Still, there are plenty of California fishing and hunting trips on the horizon, and Purple Heart Anglers’ annual fundraising crab feed was Nov. 6 in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. 

“To see them, it gives me personally a sense of satisfaction, saying thank you for what they’ve done and also what they’ve done for me and my family,” Houston said. “All of the stuff that they went through to be of service to me. And to be able to stand there and catch fish was something I won’t forget … I’m proud of the people who are involved with (Purple Heart Anglers). It’s just an amazing thing to watch.”

Purple Heart Anglers’ Alaska trips have been aided by the generosity of businesses like Ketchikan’s Gilmore Hotel (907-225-9423), which has hosted the group, and local fishing guides from Oasis Alaska Charters (907-302-4115; oasisalaskacharters. com), who made sure everyone went home with plenty of salmon fillets.

The Gilmore Hotel in Ketchikan (above) and Oasis Alaska Charters have been generous supporters during the California-based Purple Heart Anglers Alaska trips.

“The Gilmore Hotel has been on our side since day one. We’ve got a (Purple Heart Anglers) plaque that hangs on their entry across from the front desk, a ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done.’ And they treat us with respect and dignity. They care.”

As for Oasis Alaska Charters, Houston noted, “They go way past what normal is. Last year when Covid was going on, they had just bought a new van and instead of having us take taxis, they gave us the keys to the van to use in getting us to and back for the fishing. And they don’t do that for everybody.”

The guys got to bring home a lot of salmon fillets, but these trips are so much more than just fishing.

Houston raved about the guides’ generosity to his organization and has appreciated just about everyone he’s interacted with on his multiple trips to the Last Frontier and specifically in Ketchikan.

“The taxi cab drivers, they know who we are. They remember us from the years’ prior. They’re always there to welcome us and to take us wherever we want to go – even on side trips like to go see the bears. They don’t charge us for that. They just take us. Everybody cares and they treat the vets with the respect that I consider to be due.”

And the now annual trips to Alaska have become standard for Houston. Before even heading back to the Lower 48 last month, he had already made arrangements for a 2022 return for a new group of fishing vets.

“It’s one of those trips of a lifetime,” he said.

Editor’s note: For more on Purple Heart Anglers and how to contribute, go to purpleheartanglers.org