Happy Thanksgiving from Alaska Sporting Journal. We didn’t get a chance to post this on Veteran’s Day earlier this month, but we thought on a day where we give thanks to share this story that’s running in the November issue. I’m thankful for our veterans and people like Randy Houston, who’s trying to make a difference for these American heroes.
BY CHRIS COCOLES
It was one of those “trips of a lifetime,” as Randy Houston calls them, but one of the lucky participants called him with some bad news for the most irrelevant of reasons.
“We had one gentleman who is a Vietnam veteran. His health is down a little bit and he’s on his own now. He called me up the day before we were getting ready to leave,” Houston says of a charity fishing getaway to Southeast Alaska for disabled veterans. The man lived in the San Francisco Bay area, about 45 minutes south of the airport the party was flying out of.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if I can go.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ His ride got canceled and he was stuck.”
As innocent as that seems, the man was typical of many of the servicemen and -women Houston has encountered, proud veterans who have at times struggled to make it all work. For the last seven years, Houston has run a Northern California-based nonprofit organization, Purple Heart Anglers, that arranges for fishing and hunting outings for vets.
Houston and other volunteers had already taken a small group of wounded warriors to Costa Rica and Alaska. So via a random draw, seven vets who’d served in wars from Korea to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were chosen for the trip north to Ketchikan in September.
But the fact that the man without a ride was questioning whether or not he’d have the means to make it to San Francisco International Airport didn’t surprise Houston. Many of the men and women he’s encountered along the way are not just hurting physically but also mentally. Houston immediately assured the man his transport to the airport would be taken care of, and in many ways he epitomized the spirit of Purple Heart Anglers.
“I’m not going to say all of them are by themselves, but there are a lot of them,” Houston says. “Many of these have come back and they’ve divorced, suffered from PTSD, and in many cases their spouses have passed away. Just all kinds of different reasons.”
RANDY HOUSTON DIDN’T FOLLOW in the military path his older brother, Jerry, embarked on. Jerry Houston fought in Vietnam and was wounded twice starting in 1966, once from a sniper’s gunshot and, after going back, when a booby trap exploded. He lost some fingers and his body was filled with shrapnel, and Jerry was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for Valor.
Jerry, who was also exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty, passed away at 75 on April 21, 2011. Randy, 12 years younger than his brother, always looked up to Jerry but felt like he didn’t get to know him well enough until he was gone. The seeds of Purple Heart Anglers were planted while Jerry was still alive, but the support of so many volunteers who have assisted Randy along the way has been even more of a posthumous tribute to his big brother.
“I discovered a long time ago through this program that my brother had a lot of other brothers who I didn’t know about,” says Randy Houston, a retired carpenter. “The military family is part of my brother’s family, and I learn a little bit about who (Jerry) was every time I’m out with these guys. When it gets personal I walk away; I don’t want to intrude on their conversations with other veterans.”
Through all these years of fishing and hunting adventures with the veterans – often daytrips around his home in the San Francisco area – Houston says he considers himself “the youngest brother” to all of his brother’s brothers.
And if one of them strikes up a conversation with him and wants to open up, Houston has heard some of the most too-outrageous-to-be-true-but-
“I started this because I wanted to do something with my big brother – a simple thing,” Houston says. “And it’s gotten to a point now where if you ask, ‘Why do I do it?’ We’ve had over 1,700 disabled veterans out (in the field) since this program started. So I have 1,700 good reasons why I do this.”
KETCHIKAN PROVED TO BE everything these American heroes hoped to experience. The group was very competitive on the water – the vets split into teams and fished out of separate boats. This year’s trip surpassed the numbers that were landed from the previous year’s trip to Southeast Alaska. In all, almost 600 pounds of halibut and salmon fillets were packed up. (As per a tradition from the year before, Houston will freeze a lot of the wild salmon and halibut and have it served at a Purple Heart Anglers fundraising banquet next April.)
And the catch rate was high when factoring that the first day of fishing was wiped out by a storm that blew into Ketchikan. But even that day and throughout the trip, the warriors got to take in some sightseeing and wildlife viewing, both on land in the form of bald eagles and big game, and on the boat, spotting hundreds of whales.
“They didn’t get any giant fish; they just had a lot of fun. These guys were able to experience the country that they’ve served, in a way that they had never been able to,” Houston says. “Some of the guys were talking about how they could scratch something off their bucket lists.”
Houston prefers to be in the background and behind the scenes during excursions in California, where he’s been the master of ceremonies for everything from rockfish charters off the Bay Area coast to upland bird hunts in the Central Valley, but the veterans implored him to get in on the action when a silver bit the trolling set-up.
“All the guys on the boat said, ‘You’re up, dude.’ I was the guy who was holding onto the guys who were catching (fish). I’m helping them hold their rod in the chest and helping them stabilize themselves against the railing,” Houston says. “The guys were inside the cab on the six-pack boat to get out of the drizzle, and I’m standing at the door waiting for the next guy to come out. The fish hit the rod and I grabbed a hold of it and set the hook, turned around and said, ‘Come on.’ They all said, ‘No! Your turn.’”
But the traveling party, which also included a California fishing guide who helped on the boat, was far more excited when one of the veterans reeled in a silver or halibut. When one salmon was brought to the boat, Houston jokingly asked the man if it was his first from Alaskan waters.
“First salmon ever,” was his reply.
It turned out to be a trip of firsts for almost all of the servicemen: first halibut, first salmon, first bald eagle, first caribou, and first time in Alaska (six of the seven had never fished in the Last Frontier before).
The group, which helped keep the costs down by using Alaska Airlines buddy passes, got the royal treatment in Ketchikan from the historic Gilmore Hotel (907-225-9423; gilmorehotel.com). Oasis Alaska Charters (206-909-6126; oasisalaska.com) provided the boat trips for fishing.
“They went completely out of their way to make everyone comfortable and happy,” Houston says. “When we were ordering rooms, we wanted to do two beds to a room to keep costs down. But the hotel gave everyone their own room and gave us a discount.”
It turned out to be the kind of adventure most will never get to experience, particularly for these guys, many of whom don’t have the means financially or the spirit physically, and even mentally to do a DIY vacation.
What’s been satisfying for Houston over the years that he’s arranged to get disabled vets out for hunts and fishing trips is the mutual trust that’s evolved.
“A lot of these guys haven’t trusted a citizen from the United States since they got back from Vietnam,” Houston says.
And that lonely vet who thought the worst when his ride bailed on him? He’ll join Houston this month on a salmon fishing trip on California’s Sacramento River and be reunited with his son, who lives a couple hundred miles away in the northern end of the state.
“These guys were treated so well by the public in our program, when they come back it’s truly one of those trips of a lifetime,” Houston says. “They just can’t believe what people do for them because of their service.”
“One of the Vietnam vets told me, ‘I’ve never been told thank you since Vietnam.’ That’s something that he’ll never forget and something that maybe his attitude toward our country has changed.” ASJ