Lighthouse Point, Florida (PressExposure) July 04, 2009 -- Catlin Mixson had his hands full.
He was sitting in a fighting chair, holding a fishing rod and trying to reel up an amberjack that had eaten his bait 200 feet below the boat on the Johnny Morris Reef off Pompano Beach. And he needed help.
The 22-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Williston, who had lost both of his legs to an IED while on patrol in Iraq, was in danger of being pulled out of the chair by the hard-fighting fish.
That's when fellow soldier and amputee Jon Pruden stepped in, wrapping his arms around the beefy Mixson's chest to keep him in the fighting chair.
"You guys need seat belts for these things," Mixson joked to Capt. Tyler Andresen.
With Pruden holding on to Mixson and Mixson steadily reeling in line, the amberjack was no match for the two men. After a couple of minutes, Andresen reached over the side and lifted the fish into the boat.
For his 30-pound catch, Mixson got high-fives from Pruden and Andresen. Damon Zeigler, who, like Pruden, has a prosthetic right leg, which he got after serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, came over to congratulate Mixson. So did Capt. Vinnie LaSorsa, who had been driving the boat, while bilateral amputee Josh Cope, who was injured during his second tour with the Army in Iraq, shouted his approval from the other fighting chair.
The soldiers are all members of the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps those injured in the military adjust to life once home. A big part of that adjustment is getting the soldiers involved in outdoors activities such as fishing, hunting, scuba diving, skiing and bicycling.
To injured veterans, whether they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or lost limbs, simply catching a fish or learning scuba or riding a bike â things they thought they would never be able to do â enhances their recovery and their lives.
Most important, though, is the chance to get together with other soldiers who have suffered similar ordeals. And there are few better places to do that than in a boat.
When they weren't catching fish, the soldiers talked of their experiences in Iraq, in hospitals and at home. They talked about how they got injured from improvised explosive devices. Not once did they complain about their injuries or their service.
"If I wasn't injured, I would love to be in Afghanistan right now," Mixson told Pruden.
"I'd go again and again," said Pruden, 31, a captain in the Army's Third Infantry Division who attended Appalachian State in North Carolina on an ROTC scholarship and was among the first troops in Baghdad when the war started.
Pruden, with a masters degree in public administration from the University of Florida, works part time for the Wounded Warrior Project, started in 2003. The organization helps soldiers and families with everything from obtaining benefits to receiving medical care. Pruden is a peer mentor and goes to hospitals to meet wounded soldiers.
The Wounded Warrior Project's diving program, called SUDS, has trained wounded soldiers and taken them on certification dives in the Caribbean and Fort Lauderdale.
Last month, Danny Facciola and Kevin Davenport, training director at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, took Benjamin Wilson of Indiana and Marines Colin Luck of Virginia, Ryan Walsh of Massachusetts and John Rice of North Carolina diving with Capt. Bill Cole on Sea Experience II off Fort Lauderdale.
SUDS started in February 2007 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where amputees recover after returning from overseas. John Thompson volunteered at the hospital when he saw amputees in a swimming pool using prosthetic limbs.
"He put 2 and 2 together," said Facciola, a Navy veteran who dives with Thompson, and a scuba program was offered to injured soldiers.
"John would basically walk around the halls of Walter Reed and say, 'Hey, you want to get into scuba?' Fortunately, it took off. It's a physical activity they can do without putting pressure on their injury and the freedom of mobility is huge for them. A lot of these guys were so active."
Helping soldiers also is therapeutic. Beth Dreiker, a surgical nurse at Broward General Hospital, has taken part in every Fort Lauderdale SUDS dive to provide medical care, if needed, and to say thanks.
"I got involved with the group because they're fighting for our freedom, protecting our country, and I wanted to return the favor," she said. "I can sleep safe at night because of these guys. What I get back in return from them is so much more, because they're so appreciative of what people do for them."
Steve Waters can be reached at 954-356-4648 or swaters@SunSentinel.com
You can help Volunteer or donate money to:
The Wounded Warrior Project (woundedwarriorproject.org)
Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (sudsdiving.org)
Future fishing trips To arrange a fishing trip for wounded soldiers, contact Jon Pruden at jpruden@wounded warriorproject.org or 904-673-7975. Copyright Â© 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel