Warriors on the Water: Part I

Editor's note: This is the first installment in a three-part series about the second annual Warriors on the Water bass fishing tournament, where bass professionals spent a weekend with armed forces personnel at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Warriors on the Water photo gallery | Read Part II | Read Part III

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Tim Wilks of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne sits at a small round table at the back of the room with his sons, Chris, 10, and Eric, 6. Today he left his fatigues hanging in a closet, opting instead to wear khakis and a tournament fishing shirt. Still, his sun-beaten face and rough hands relate stories from a desert that isn't far behind him.

His focus is on the well-lit boxing ring surrounded by dark rows of tables and chairs in the middle of Sports USA, a smokeless bar at Fort Bragg. The three ropes lining the ring are red, white and blue, and the pristine floor tiles that radiate from the middle of the room are blue and red.

Overhead, team banners from the NFL and MLB hang from the ceiling, including one for the out-of-service Montreal Expos, retained perhaps for its colors. In fact, most everything in the room seems to hold a specific color pattern, promoting the flag and signifying what it means to the Fort Bragg soldiers who protect it.

The room also houses all manner of quarter-suckers — pool tables and arcade games — enough to keep the 200 or so gathered soldiers and their families happy. But on this Wednesday night all eyes are on the professional anglers who fill the boxing ring, tackle bags at their feet, rods and reels lining the ropes.

Appropriate to the venue, a little competition breaks out. "How many Air Force do we have in here?" emcee Greg Lahr asks from the middle of the ring.

A few hands rise from a section at the bar, not yet sensing that a fight is brewing. The base covers such a variety of services to the U.S. armed forces that Bragg is a military melting pot: Marines, Army, Navy and this too-polite crew from nearby Pope Air Force Base. It adds up to an interesting dynamic when all groups are represented in a room with beer on tap.

"How about the Army?" A solid "Hooah" lifts from the uniformed soldiers occupying the left half of the room. Wilks does his part and then some, slightly lifting up from his chair, giving half a Tiger Woods fist pump as Chris and Eric watch his every move.

"Do we have anyone from the Navy?" A face from the room's shadowy outskirts looks up and, sorely outnumbered, simply gives a nod.

There was only one branch still to be called on and, three beers deep, they have picked up on the vibe and are waiting. "How 'bout my Marines?"

A penetrating "Hooah!" fills the air, followed by an assortment of satisfied grunts that leaves the rest of the room wishing for a second go-round — excluding the sailor, of course.

The occasion: the second annual Warriors on the Water, a fishing tournament set up to honor those who have or are currently serving in the U.S. military. The tournament is still two days away, but the pro anglers (from both the Bassmaster Elite Series and the FLW Tour) and the soldiers gathered in Sports USA for registration and an explanation of the rules. But at the moment, the soldiers have a single interest.

Warriors on the Water continues on Page Two