Long finds new passion in program that helps wounded veterans through fishing
Posted on November 23, 2014 10:15 am CST
By Deirdre Shesgreen
WASHINGTON – The moment the invitation landed in his congressional in-box, Rep. Billy Long was hooked.
It wasn't a ticket to a Washington gala or a swank fundraiser. It was a request to go fishing with a group of wounded veterans, and Long was happy to be reeled in.
"You get all kinds of invitations to everything in the world" as a member of Congress, Long said. But this is "just one of those things I've fallen in love with."
The Springfield Republican is now a regular participant in an annual charity fishing tournament run by Rivers of Recovery, a small Colorado nonprofit that aims to help veterans suffering from the physical and emotional wounds of war. Last week, Long was also a "celebrity guest" at the group's annual fundraiser in Washington, where he used his skills as a former auctioneer to cajole the crowd into bidding on luxury getaways.
"Congressman Long has been one of our biggest supporters," said Dan Cook, the group's founder and executive director.
Rivers of Recovery aims to help returning soldiers recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related injuries through outdoor recreational activities. The organization takes small groups of combat veterans on experiential rehabilitation trips designed to build confidence and self-empowerment with a combination of fly fishing, rafting and talk therapy.
Long said the idea of helping veterans and going fishing made it a natural fit for him — and Cook agreed it's been a great partnership.
The veterans think it's "pretty cool" to go fishing with a congressman, Cook said, and Long seems to enjoy it as much as they do. "Billy is a very competitive fisherman," he said.
So every June for the past three years, Long has driven out to the Chesapeake Bay and spent a day in a boat with a few former soldiers. The first year, he said, his boat captain was a Purple Heart recipient who fought in Vietnam. He had two other fishing companions — one who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after a stint in Afghanistan and another who lost both legs in Iraq.
"He'd been blown up in Iraq," Long recalled of the 26-year-old veteran. "He stood and fished on his artificial legs all day long. I was flabbergasted."
Long is now trying to help Rivers of Recovery arrange a charity fishing tournament in the Springfield area. Cook said the congressman has connected him with veterans' groups in southwest Missouri and introduced him to Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, the outdoor retailer headquartered in Springfield.
Long said the fishing tournament and the longer expeditions run by Rivers of Recovery help veterans get "back to nature" and away from the stress of daily life.
"It takes them back to their childhood when they fished with their grandpa," Long said. It's "a return to normalcy."
For Long, it's time away from the politics of Washington and a chance to get back to one of his favorite pastimes.
"They feel honored to be fishing with a congressman, and I feel honored to be fishing with wounded veterans," he said.