Fishing for a cause: Purple Heart Anglers thanks veterans through outdoor fun

Sylas Wright
U.S. Army veteran Ken Scobee observes as fishing guide James Netzel removes the hook from the mouth of a small Kokanee during a Purple Heart Anglers outing on Stampede Reservoir.
Sylas Wright / Sierra Sun |

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Visit to volunteer or learn more about Purple Heart Anglers.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — When the fish aren’t biting, an experienced fishing guide pulls out the jokes.

“All right,” begins James Netzel of Tight Lines Guide Service, “there are two fish in a tank. One of them says to the other, ‘Hey, do you know how to drive this thing?’”

Netzel looks at his clients for a reaction. It’s mixed. A couple of courteous smiles and a look of perplexity.

Although short of a gut-buster, the joke is fitting for the occasion.

Netzel has two U.S. Army veterans aboard on a tough Monday morning of fishing on Stampede Reservoir. Netzel’s boat — a fine machine equipped with a newfangled fish finder, a remote control steering device and an American flag flying proudly overhead — is one of a dozen volunteer vessels carrying some 18 U.S. military veterans.

The outing is the product of Purple Heart Anglers, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 to help aid in the healing of disabled veterans through supported fishing and hunting trips.

“They (the veterans) think it’s a pretty good deal,” says Randy Houston, founder and president of Purple Heart Anglers, which covers all the costs and logistics of the outdoor trips. “Usually the question, ‘Do you like to fish, hunt or eat?’ is not a hard one for these guys to answer. And that’s all we do. We don’t do any politics and we don’t do therapy.”

The Stampede event marks the second year Purple Heart Anglers has ventured into the Tahoe area. Truckee’s Marc Christophel, who operates Christophel’s Guide service, joined the cause last year after volunteering his boat and expertise for a day of fishing on Collins Lake.

Christophel helped organize a fishing trip on Donner Lake last August and was the driving force behind Monday’s event. Along with the support of Houston and Purple Heart Anglers, he plans to continue organizing trips on Stampede each year.

“It’s a small token of my appreciation for these veterans, just to say thanks in whatever way I can,” Christophel says.

Heroes on a boat

On Netzel’s boat are two veterans of the 101st Airborne Division — Ken Scobee, 73, and Biff Brethour, 72 — and Scobee’s wife Lory. Known as the Screaming Eagles, soldiers in this elite Army division are tasked with conducting “forcible entry” air assault operations “in any environment,” according to the 101st Mission Statement.

While both Scobee and Brethour served in the early to mid 1960s before the Vietnam War escalated, Scobee was fortunate to escape the early stages of the conflict with his life. A transport truck he was riding in during a “non-combat” mission in 1964 was hit by a rocket. The hit-and-run assault struck the undercarriage of the vehicle, flipping it off its wheels.

Miraculously, none of the men on board were killed. Scobee suffered a significant back injury, however, and was airlifted by helicopter to a field hospital in Saigon. The injury caused bulging discs between his vertebrae, which resulted in increasingly severe pain for the next 30 years of his life. He also experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scobee eventually underwent surgery to ease the pain. But he still moves gingerly to this day. An unexpected, jarring step on the boat ramp Monday lit up the old injury, and Scobee gritted his teeth until it subsided.

“It was just one of those unfortunate things. We weren’t even supposed to see any combat,” Scobee says.

Stories like Scobee’s illustrate why Houston, the brother of a Vietnam veteran, founded Purple Heart Anglers.

“A lot of the Vietnam vets have told me that it’s the thank you that they never got. It’s touching. It has had a profound effect on me,” he says. “When I’ve got a guy in a wheelchair telling me thank you for what I’m doing, after he was shot while protecting us and our freedom, it feels backwards.”

Adds Christophel: “It’s not as much about the fishing as it is about the relationships and talking with these guys and hearing their stories. It’s about showing our appreciation for what they’ve done. They’re heroes in my opinion.”

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