Paying tribute to members of the American military for their honorable and selfless service to our country takes many forms. Members of the outdoor community were among the first to embrace that patriotic practice. One the most remarkable and enduring of such recognitions is the Soldiers on the Sound Fluke Tournament, organized by the Smithtown Bay Yacht Club, and supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 395 from Saint James, New York This event is the most popular and successful of those activities to be conducted along the north shore of Long Island.
One-hundred-and-ten service men and women from four branches of the military turned out for the event. Those in attendance represented the army, navy, marines and the renowned 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard based in Westhampton. Many of the soldiers had recently returned from deployment abroad. The “106” had the most robust turnout of personnel since it has the longest standing partnership with the tournament. Members of the Smithtown Bay Yacht club, private charter captains and mates volunteered their boats, time and fishing expertise to make this the most expansive and successful fluke tournament thus far. About 50 boats participated in the tournament and hosted teams of angling soldiers. Many other behind-the-scenes folks volunteered their time and skills to coordinate event logistics and a magnificent clam bake and buffet. A highlight of the day for all participants was an equally magnificent raffle. Many fabulous prize donations were made by generous individuals, businesses and corporate sponsors from Long Island and beyond.
It was my honor to once again participate in the event and serve as mate aboard Captain Adrian Mason’s boat, Big Trouble. Two distinguished members of the 106th Rescue Wing joined with us for the day’s fishing activities: Master Sergeant Shawn Burke and Chief Master Sergeant John Bellissimo. These two seasoned military veterans are also seasoned anglers who caught many fluke and countless big sea robins. Two of the team’s keeper fluke were contenders for the day’s weigh-in. It mattered not that their substantial summer flounder were bested by the winning flatfish of 6.12 pounds. In reality, every one present at the event won! Terrific conversation and a multitude of laughs were the icing on the cake for our shared time on the water.
As we bounced bottom in search of fluke and got better acquainted, we talked about fishing, the military and the mission of the 106th Rescue Wing. Fishing is a terrific bonding agent. I learned that the “wing” deploys worldwide to provide combat search and rescue coverage for United States and allied forces. They are recognized as a world-class team of diverse, adaptable rescue-focused personnel. Their primary mission is to provide worldwide personnel recovery, combat search and rescue, expeditionary combat support, and civil search and rescue support to federal and state authorities. Many of the wing’s returning soldiers were engaged in many successful rescues in Afghanistan. The 106 also provides personnel recovery to the state of New York and supports any sate operations where their specialized expertise is needed, such as with natural or man-made disasters. Their track record is exemplary.
The concept for the Soldiers on the Sound Fluke Tournament was the brainchild of Smithtown Bay Yacht Club president, Mark Garry, and was embraced by the entire membership of the Smithtown Bay Yacht Club. In his introduction to the tournament participants during the prize raffle, Mark, also the Tournament Director said: “This event is a small token of appreciation for all that the U.S. military does so that we can all enjoy our freedoms and life in the greatest country on earth. We can never repay you enough for all that you do for us and for your courage and skills.”
While the initial event five years ago was a tremendous success, the 2013 tournament sets the bar even higher. This event just keeps getting better each year. All soldiers and civilian participants were treated to a pre-tournament breakfast, a hearty barbeque upon their return from fishing, live music and a hot food buffet as the extensive raffle was conducted. It seemed as if prizes were being handed out non-stop for hours: fishing rod and reel outfits, gift bags, gift certificates and hand-crafted products The top prizes were kayaks, flat screen TVs, internet tablets and BBQs. There were rounds of applause, pats on the backs and smiles aplenty, and the soldiers returned to their bases with gear bags heavier than when they arrived It all felt heartwarmingly good.
Beyond the fishing, the food, the prizes and the camaraderie of the event, one soldier’s comment struck home. During one of the idle moments in an otherwise very active day, Chief Master Sergeant John Bellissimo turned to me and repeated what he had said to me once before: “You cannot imagine how much an event like this means to the entire base. Even those soldiers who did not attend will be talking about this for weeks. What matters most of all this is that we know people here on Long Island care about what we do. We are already looking forward to next year.”
Regardless of one’s political beliefs or political party affiliations, we as a nation are united by the freedoms we all enjoy. Those liberties were bestowed upon us by visionary forefathers, etched in our Constitution, fought for in wars, and above all else, preserved and protected for all generations by those who have given military service. We are forever indebted to the many who have served and to those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice so others can enjoy unparalleled liberty. As we go about our busy lives, we sometimes forget to say thank you to those who protect those freedoms. This event was a small token of appreciation but packed a big wallop with a huge Thank You!