2018-08-02 / Around Town

Vets Get ‘Reel' Therapy

By James Merolla

Charter vessels take veterans out to fish, helping the vets heal from physical and emotional trauma. Charter vessels take veterans out to fish, helping the vets heal from physical and emotional trauma. In 2006, a Connecticut schoolteacher learned that more veterans were dying each day by their own hand than in combat.

Kathy Granfield, an eighth-grade science teacher from West Haven, a charter boat captain, and fifth generation in a family of Irish fishermen, got the idea to help those who served this country, with a day on the bay.

They call it, “Fishin’ with a Mission.”

Granfield formed VA Charters in June 2009. Three years before, her father, a Korean War veteran, read that 22 vets were dying each day on average from suicide.

“Somebody should do something,” Granfield said.

“Then, do something,” her father responded. “What do you do when you feel bad? You go out in the boat, right?”

Two years later, she took six vets out to fish on her 34-foot Black Mariah. None of the veterans’ agencies knew who Granfield was, a civilian without military clearance. But once cleared from the red tape and landlubbers, her first party caught a boatload of fish. “It kind of snowballed [from there],” she said.

Realizing that she didn’t have the funds to sustain her mission, she formed a non-profit. Capt. Mark Petitt of Plymouth, Mass. came aboard, then Texas native and U.S. Navy veteran Randell Bagwell joined in with his River Rebel Charters out of Bristol.

Two other vessels soon joined, Flying Connie Charters in Clinton, Conn., under Capt. Mike Pirri, and Shawn Tibbetts’ boat out of Saco, Maine. Among the five, they attempt 50 trips per season with intimate groups to contribute healing to those who suffer with PTSD.

Bagwell has been taking around 15 charters of veterans out each summer. His last foray went out this week, entertaining five active military members stationed in South Kingstown.

When he was asked to join the effort, Bagwell knew Granfield wasn’t making any money on the arrangement. He knew he wouldn’t, either. But that wasn’t the point.

“The good it does, the stories they share… it gets them out of themselves,” he said. “You can’t put any price on that. You can’t see our disabilities all the time. Sometimes you can; sometimes you can't. But when the veterans walk on the dock, and it sways back and forth, and they get into the boat, they have a pole in their hands. They forget their troubles for that day.”

“I wanted to give them something to remind them of what they were fighting for, and a way to say ‘thank you, for your service,’” said Granfield. “I really want them to have a great experience, [and] to get a lot of fish in the boat. Sometimes, they don’t fish. Sometimes, they talk or remain silent within the boat.

“I just want to let them do what they need to do,” she said. “As soon as the boat leaves the dock, something changes. It’s like you’ve left everything behind and life just seems better out there, when it’s just the water, the wind, the sun and the fish; and I wanted to offer that to them.”

Bagwell shared a story of when a young, apparently suicidal vet stayed in the front of the boat while five other veterans hooked fish. They eventually convinced him to fish. As they debarked from the vessel, the young soldier hugged Granfield hard around the neck and said, “I will see tomorrow,” reducing her to tears.

Bagwell told her, “If that’s the one life we save, this whole thing will be worth it. That’s 21, not 22” (the daily veteran suicide rate), he said.

One of Bagwell’s charters, out of New Bedford, included an 82-yearold veteran dying of cancer. Bagwell needed a nurse to come along and posted for one on social media. Three volunteered and still do regularly, as needed, including a corpsman from the Navy.

After failing to catch a fluke, Bagwell hooked something and handed the pole over to the reluctant and weakened vet, making him reel the fish in, not cruelly, but therapeutically, something he had at first refused to do.

It turned out to be a skate. After much resistance, the veteran got it into the boat. At trip’s end, the nurse said, “Today, was a good day.”

For another excursion, a man called to book a charter with his son, asking how much it would be. Bagwell told him he could get others aboard to defray costs.

“No, I just want this to be me and my son,” he insisted. “You don’t remember me, but I was one of the homeless veterans you took out a few years ago.”

Bagwell said the man had gotten his life together, and had reclaimed his relationship with his son, using angling to bond them.

“Listening to their stories has been very humbling. The courage that they show and the spirit that they have,” Granfield said.

One silent 21-year-old soldier took the steering wheel and came alive. “It runs just like my tank, ma’am,” he told Granfield.

The 88-year-old Korean War vet who suggested to Granfield to let the boy take the wheel said, “He needed to be himself again.”

To donate or for more information, visit veterananglercharters.org.

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