KODIAK -- At first glance, the group isn't different from any other collection of 20-somethings excited to be in Kodiak, experiencing the world-class fishing and taking in the sights. The men joke around, pull pranks on each other and engage in the verbal one-upmanship banter common among guys.
The only outward sign this group is not strictly on vacation, but is participating in a process of healing, is the presence of Shane Parsons, a double leg amputee who joins the group with his wheelchair. Without exception, the others have missing limbs and scars of their own, as well.
For the past five years, the Wounded Warrior Project has taken soldiers with serious wounds sustained from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and invited them to Kodiak, where they enjoy the hospitality the island has to offer.
During a recent visit, 10 project participants enjoyed outstanding weather, gifts from local businesses and organizations, and dinners provided by chef Joel Chenet, the Chief Petty Officers' Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The experiences help show the wounded veterans that there is life after major injury, local organizer Peter Malley said.
For Parsons, the opportunity to get on a boat and go deep sea fishing is just one milestone since losing his legs, and nearly his life, in 2006.
On Sept. 30 of that year, Parsons was in the lead Humvee in a convoy in Ramadi, Iraq, when the vehicle he was driving was struck by an explosively formed projectile. The blast left Parsons with a traumatic brain injury that affects his cognitive skills to this day.
Parsons said he joined the Army as a result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but also because of a family commitment to the military he traces to grandfathers who participated in the invasion of Normandy in World War II and in the Korean War.
Former President Bush personally delivered a purple heart to Parsons as he was recovering in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Recovery has been years long, but Parsons, always a physically active person, has continued to compete in activities like sled hockey with the San Antonio Rampage, hand-cycling the 150 miles from San Antonio to Corpus Christi in Texas to raise money for multiple sclerosis, and skiing. His love of therapy dogs has led him to work with Jeff Corwin from the Animal Planet channel.
"I'm a huge fisherman. I've been fishing since I was 5 years old," Parsons said, adding that he learned to fish for walleye and swim in lake Erie, near where he grew up in Ohio.
Parsons said the four days of fishing in Kodiak helped him channel and diminish the anger and anxiety that are symptoms of a traumatic brain injury.
"You guys, showing us what's up, helps us out a lot so we really appreciate it," Parsons said, "Some of the guys may not show it, but we do. A lot of the guys keep it inside and for a while I was like that."
Also joining the wounded warriors in Kodiak this year was one of the first women injured in the war in Iraq.
Danielle Green-Byrd lost her left arm when she was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade as she stood watch on the second floor of a police station just five miles away from the Green Zone in Baghdad. Her injury came on May 25, 2004.
After her recovery, Green-Byrd went back to school and earned a master's degree in school counseling.
During a farewell dinner recently hosted by the VFW at their post, words were spoken about the sacrifice of Vietnam veterans who came home to little support from the public. Green-Byrd said that experience was important to remember as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
"Just because soldiers are coming home, the battle isn't over," Green-Byrd said. "There are many battles that soldiers return home to and a lot of it is invisible with post-traumatic stress disorder, so it's important that organizations like WWP and the town of Kodiak to help in that process of recovery -- because this is about recovery.
"I hope this goes on 20 years from now, 30 years from now, because it's just good," she said. "It just shows the soldiers coming home that, hey, we have not forgotten your sacrifice. ... Hopefully next year you have 10-15 new soldiers up here enjoying this wonderful experience."
It isn't just the fishing that helps the wounded soldiers. Malley said drawing the veterans from all across the country to participate in the event together gives them a chance to make new connections and learn from each other.
"They talk about their injuries," Malley said. "They talk about what's good and what's bad about different prosthetics. They actually do a little networking. It's fun to see them sit down and talking to each other about similar experiences."
"A lot of these guys, sometimes they have a serious injury and then they find their calling," Malley said.