At Badin Lake, volunteers took a group of 40 wounded American troops and disabled veterans fishing late last week. It was the second annual Top Shelf Fishing Festival for troops and veterans at the lake, about an hour northeast of Charlotte.
Mike Mullis had a huge grin on his face as he pulled a squirming bass out the live-well on his fishing partner’s boat.
“A 5-lb. bass,” Mullis said proudly while holding it.
He dropped it back into the live-well, closed the lid, and made another cast.
Mullis, like many of the veterans, hides his injuries well. He took a bullet to the leg.
“It actually happened at a firefight in Afghanistan, and the only thing it was – I had my leg stuck out too far past one of them mud huts, and he got lucky,” he said. “But I lived to see another day and I’m glad it’s over with.”
He’s now a recruiter for the National Guard. Here at Badin Lake, he and 39 other wounded warriors and veterans had a rare chance to simply enjoy a day on the water.
They rode in boats with experienced fishermen, who came from across the Carolinas and Virginia to volunteer at the tournament. Robert King towed his boat here from Roanoke Rapids, three-and-a-half hours away.
“My father is a veteran, and when he came back from Vietnam, you could tell the change in him as a person,” King said. “I’ve always thought about it, and when this opportunity came up, I say you know, might make a difference in somebody’s life, so I had to come. And I’ll be back next year.”
In another boat, Gerard Thomas said he wants to come back next year too, even though he wasn’t having the best luck.
“It’s been some years since I fished,” he said with a laugh.
Thomas has served in the military for more than 20 years. When he was in Iraq, an improvised explosive device blew up his vehicle, injuring his back, neck and right arm.
“This is therapy for me,” he said. “To come out here on the lake and just be out, you know just relaxation, rest and relaxation – I think that’s therapy for the soul and the mind.”
That’s one of the reasons Terry Snyder organizes this tournament. He’s the founder of Operation North State, a group that serves North Carolina’s troops and veterans. He and a friend decided fishing would be a great way to bring them together.
“What's so important with this are the relationships that have come out of this,” Snyder said. “We've kind of become a little fraternity, and that's something we're all pretty proud of.”
At the end of the tournament, each pairing plopped their fish into a bucket to check their weight. Derrick Mitchell and his partner were among the first to test the scales.
“We were in second for about five minutes!” Mitchell said with a laugh.
He’s stationed at Fort Bragg and has a laundry list of injuries from serving in Afghanistan.
He’d never been fishing before the tournament last year, and he said he had to come back.
“For us, everything is go, go, go, go,” Mitchell said. “Very seldom do we get a chance to get out and participate with other people that are actually – you know, people give us things. But to actually have others that’s supporting us participate in the events with us is outstanding.”