When 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Larry Draughn participated in the Marines Helping Marines Fishing Tournament on Lake Hopatcong last summer, he was just six weeks removed from an IED explosion in Afghanistan that cost him both of his legs and two fingers. This year, Draughn once again returned to the lake to participate, this time with a pair of prosthetic legs that keep him on his feet instead of in a wheelchair.
“I feel much more mobile, and am definitely doing better,” said the Dayton, Ohio, native on Saturday. “And I had a blast out there—caught a lot more fish this year.”
The Second Annual Marines Helping Marines tournament, organized by former Marines Joby Poster and Erik Kowal, drew nearly 30 teams of anglers, which was fewer than Poster and Kowal were hoping for. But the energy of the event, they said, was stronger than ever.
“The community is getting more involved,” Kowal said, pointing out that the Mt. Arlington Fire Department came to help set up and fill the dunk tank at Lee’s County Park, where the festivities were based, and that Andy Cazzetto of Brothers In Lawn Landscaping came by in the morning to mow the grass for free. Sponsorships were up this year, and people donated everything from raffle prizes to elaborate cakes. “It’s the stuff like that that really makes you feel like people are getting involved and stepping up,” he said.
Nine wounded veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, visiting from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, were part of the event, along with several professional anglers. When the core group of visitors went to Cracker Barrel for dinner on Friday, Poster said, word got out about the veterans in attendance, who received a standing ovation from the diners and servers and whose dinner was paid for by donations chipped in around the restaurant. “It really was an amazing scene,” Poster said.
And it was part of giving those wounded veterans a fun time, which is the ultimate focus of the event. Marines Helping Marines is a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that aims to support injured U.S. servicemen and women. Tony Begenwald, a 74-year-old former Marine and leader of the group, says that nearly all of the money raised by Marines Helping Marines goes back to those wounded warriors through events such as the fishing tournament.
Professional fisherman Dave Wolak has been involved in both years’ events, last year participating on a team with Draughn and this year volunteering to shuttle people on and off the lake. He came up from North Carolina and said he couldn’t think of a more worthy place to be. “It’s a great cause, and we get to enjoy the camaraderie and ambiance of nature that comes with fishing alongside these really amazing people,” Wolak said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
When Wolak was given special recognition by Poster and Kowal during the awards presentation, he went on. “Ever since the tournament last year, every time I see someone in uniform—whether in the airport or at a restaurant or anywhere—I walk up to them and thank them,” he said. “It was an extremely humbling experience for me. … These guys sacrificed a ton, and we salute you.”
Poster and Kowal were hoping for an increase in turnout this year, but a combination of factors seemed to keep attendance down. For one thing, it fell on the same weekend as the Stew Lant Lake Hopatcong Challenge, an annual Knee Deep Club sponsored fishing tournament. Also, Wolak pointed out, many times the veterans’ doctors decide at the last minute that they shouldn’t be cleared to travel or schedule last-minute surgeries, which means several of the participants slated to make the trip from Walter Reed didn’t come.
Nonetheless, those who did participate enjoyed a sunny day of fishing on Lake Hopatcong. Mike Munn and Jim Powers of Andover came to participate and support the veterans, and said they had a great time. “I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday,” Munn said, “than with this group of guys.”