Every week, Tony Begenwald visits wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. “I can’t go over there and pull the trigger for them anymore,” says Begenwald, 73, a NoLoad (“No Longer on Active Duty”) Marine. “So I’m here for them when they need support back home. It’s payback time for all they’ve done.”
Begenwald is chairman of the Marines Helping Marines Program, and helped to drive some of the 13 wounded veterans from Washington, D.C., area hospitals to Lake Hopatcong on Saturday for the first-ever Marines Helping Marines Fishing Tournament on Lake Hopatcong.
The tournament, organized by Joby Poster and Erik Kowal, drew 33 teams of two to Lee’s Park, plus scores of others who came by to enjoy , the food prepared by volunteers, the music from the bands Fully Loaded and Rock Kandy, and the opportunity to support those who have served overseas.
Eight of the Marines and five of the soldiers in attendance were wounded veterans driven up from Bethesda and from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and anglers who partnered up with a wounded Marine or soldier paid a reduced entry fee. The tournament featured a $4,000 grand prize, but the majority of the funds raised went to Marines Helping Marines, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003. “Over 98 percent of what we collect is spent on wounded warriors,” Begenwald said. “The beauty of our organization is that it’s all volunteers giving back.”
Marine Lance Cpl. Larry Draughn, 21, lost both of his legs and two fingers in an IED (improvised explosion device) explosion in Afghanistan on May 30. Just six weeks later, Draughn, a Dayton, Ohio native, enjoyed a weekend away from his rehabilitation at Walter Reed doing one of the things he enjoys most. “Oh yeah, it was great out there,” he said as the tournament was wrapping up, his 10-month-old son on his lap. “I just bought all new equipment for this, and we had a fun day.”
Draughn’s wife, Kaytlin, says it’s the second major event her husband has participated in since being treated at Bethesda and beginning rehabilitation at Walter Reed. “We went to a Washington Nationals baseball game,” she said. “But he loves fishing, and this has been a nice change of scenery.”
Draughn, who also blew out an eardrum in the explosion, will be getting his prosthetic legs on Friday. His mother, Barbara, said she has faith he’ll be walking in no time. “I know him, he’s strong,” she said. “He inspires all of us.”
Barbara said events such as the one on Saturday really epitomize the strength among Marines and other veterans. “The Marines have been so good to him and to us.”
Event organizer Poster, who lives in the Poconos, served in the Marines for six years, including Operation Desert Storm, and is now a professional angler who regularly fishes on Lake Hopatcong. He and Kowal (also a former Marine) decided to start the tournament to give something back. “These guys have done so much, it’s just nice to give them the opportunity to do something they love,” said Poster, who finished in third place with fishing partner Sgt. Jacob Knospler, an East Stroudsburg native who was injured in the battle of Fallujah in 2004 when a grenade exploded in his face.
“It was a lot of work for them, but it’s such a positive thing,” said Justine Kowal, Erik’s wife. “The two of them put in so many hours, and we’re all just really pleased with the turnout. We hope to make it an annual event.”
Master Sgt. Crystalann Duarte, a soldier who was on active duty during the Persian Gulf War and now handles Army casualties, said she hopes to have the opportunity to come back and fish again next year. “Fishing is a sport these [wounded veterans] can participate in—you can use your upper body, you have to concentrate, it takes skill and finesse,” she said. “Plus, it’s always great to get fresh air and sunshine in such a beautiful place.”
For more information about the organization, visit marineshelpingmarines.org.
For additional coverage of the event, check out these local news stories:
Daily Record: Wounded Vets Find Healing in Lake Hopatcong
Star Ledger: Marines Helping Marines Photo Gallery