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

Continued from Page One

"Are you guys ready for the raffle?" shouts Lahr, president of Warriors on the Water. The enthusiasm and quickness of the "Hooah" that followed proved that no matter how many wars or tours have been left behind or loom in the future, nobody is above the excitement of a good old-fashioned giveaway.
Lahr grabs six rod and reel combos. "Who here just got back within the last 30 days?" About 10 men raise their hands, including Wilks, whose eager smile is matched only by those of his young boys. With the direction this seems to be heading, the family knows they may stand to walk out with some free gear.

"How about 20 days?" Wilks' hand stands strong, as three or four hands drop out. "Ten days? Five days?" Wilks' hand seems to get higher with every elimination round, and by the end, he has the last hand standing. When Lahr calls him onstage to receive his prize, he's already halfway there.

A solid 6-feet-tall and pushing 40, Wilks had returned four days earlier after a brief stint in Taji, Iraq. At the end of May, he'll be sent back to finish the 15-month tour that started in January. For now Wilks, who has fished in some semi-pro tournaments, is happy to be with his kids and hungry to get on the water.

Fishing, he says, is "something that I can do for myself but also get my wife and kids involved, too. It's become more of a family thing for me. My kids love it and my wife — she's starting to love it."

The WOW tournament is a way of linking two worlds — service to family and service to country — that Wilks has kept separate in the past. "It kind of forces them together, which is a good thing I guess," he says.

With what he's been through overseas, he's happy just to be at home. A month ago, when Wilks was on a routine trip to check on the security guards at the Ministry of Defense, he had sniper's bullet pass by his head and strike a wall 5 feet in front of him. "It really freaked me out," he says now.

But Wilks remains a lifer. He made the decision to join in the eighth grade, but was forced to wait until he was a high school junior. He spent six years in the reserves before joining active duty in 1991. His tour in 2006 was shortened because of a herniated disc in his back, which was "not a battlefield injury," but he says his close call was the first time he'd been in the crosshairs. "I kept a cool head during it, but afterwards …" he says, trailing off. "It helps you appreciate your time at home."

Appreciating time at home and honoring time overseas was the idea behind the WOW tournament when three avid bass anglers and Desert Storm veterans, Hal Abshire, Bob Cunningham and Lahr, started it a year ago. They wanted to give the soldiers a day as far as possible from combat.

The idea spread among the fishing community and eventually found the ears of Elite Series angler Marty Stone, who lives in Linden, N.C., less than 30 miles outside of Fort Bragg. Stone called some of his friends in the professional bass fishing community, and the tournament started to take the shape of a mini pro-am.

"There's nowhere else that I would rather live in this world," Stone says as he addresses the troops during the raffle. "I have never met a group of professionals like a group of soldiers. I admire your dedication."

The respect is clearly mutual. Stone stands alongside fellow Elite Series anglers Keith Phillips, Glenn DeLong, Mark Rogers and Steve Daniel, signing autographs. For a solid hour, fishing legend Forrest Lee Wood has a line of 15 to 20 soldiers looking for autographs.

Warriors on the Water continues on Page Three.