The vets couldn’t have been happier; maybe content is the right word. They arrived at the Killam’s Point Conference Center on July 4th and were given a chair, a fishing rod and the great pond known as Long Island Sound.
“It’s wonderful. I am at peace here,” said Tracey Pettway, 44, who is a patient at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven. It was the second getaway time for Pettway, who served in a Navy amphibious group in Desert Storm. He was smiling.
That these disabled vets were able to cast their lines on June 26 and then again on July 4 is because two local legislators, Rep. Lonnie Reed (D-Branford) and State Sen. Ed Meyer (D-Guilford), took up their cause. They stepped in after increased licensing costs and a maze of paperwork for each vet threatened the existence of the four-year-old “Take a Vet Fishing” program.
Jeff Buggee of the First Congregational Church of Branford, one of the co-founders of the program, told the Eagle the church started the program in 2007. “The idea is to take vets, typically those who are at a veterans’ facility, and give them a day outside. Overall, 222 vets have gone fishing,” he said in an interview.
The center, a 55-acre quiet refuge of undisturbed woodlands, marsh, and a rocky tidal area, is owned by the church. It extends to a rocky outcropping onto Long Island Sound where a cross has been erected.
The vets love being there, they told us. They especially love the fellowship that comes with a day of fishing. And when they reel one in, well, the photo says it all.
“This was a little seed that grew into a beautiful sunflower,” said Aletta Wells, whose husband Tim helped to start the program.
But that was about to end. The reason: The federal government had imposed a set of onerous forms designed to protect certain species of fish. The complicated forms, plus increased licensing costs for freshwater and saltwater fishing, made a half day at the Killam’s Point Conference Center a bureaucratic nightmare.
Buggee and Ed Ochman, a member of the First Congregational Church and one of the organizers of the program, went to Sen. Meyer and Rep. Reed. The two men explained the benefits of fishing for those suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Fishing, they had learned, would help. “On our first outing,” Buggee said Korean War and World War II veterans showed up, some of who were blind. I was worried, but they were incredible.” With the help of volunteers, they cast their lines.
Meyer and Reed introduced legislation to streamline the application process and to enable eligible non-profits to pay $250 once a year for a combination saltwater-freshwater fishing license that permits up to 50 fishing trips for disabled groups at no cost to the participants.
“It was heartbreaking to think that this new law might be lost,” Reed said. “‘Take a Vet Fishing’ is a perfect program. Veterans struggling with health challenges are able throw in their lines and forget their troubles and share good times with the most dedicated and joyful volunteers imaginable.”
The state General Assembly adopted the bill before the legislative session drew to a close last May. Then Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the fishing bill. When the legislature reconvened in June for one day, Sen. Meyer and Rep. Reed decided to try again.
Meyer said he spoke to his colleagues in the Senate. “If we can show you that this will not be a talker,” meaning it will not lead to a filibuster, “then will you go for it?” he asked.
Republicans didn’t mind overriding their governor on this particular law,” he said in an interview.
In the end, the new law that enables disabled vets and other eligible groups to fish for free was re-passed by the State House and Senate. Both houses overrode Rell’s veto of June 8.
Senate Bill 124, “An Act Concerning Long Island Sound, Coastal Permitting, Certain Group Fishing Licenses and Permits for Solid Waste Facilities,” became law just in time for July 4th.
“I want to especially thank the state Department of Environment Protection for helping Senator Meyer and me to craft a sensible solution,” Reed said.
Many of the 40 vets told Reed and Meyer at their first outing on June 26 how grateful they were for their intervention. “One vet told us that this was the first time he felt good about being a vet since he got back from Iraq,” said Ray Luhn, a volunteer and a founding member of the group.
That evening Branford held its fireworks display at Branford Point, roughly a week before the July 4th holiday. It’s the Branford way. Our photographer, Mary Johnson, was on hand to record the event. The spectacular show over the harbor could be seen for miles around. It was a fitting tribute to the vets.