by Laura Tingo
Jerry Doubek of Nixa, Mo., has enjoyed fishing since he was a boy, but since meeting USA member Leroy Shull, he doesn’t just fish for the sport of it– he fishes for freedom.
When Jerry, a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, returned home in 2009 after serving in Afghanistan—leaving the structured life of a soldier and facing the loss of his lower right leg—he experienced something many soldiers face.
“My transition was difficult,” said Jerry, a former Army Ranger who served with the 173rd Army Brigade Combat Team and was awarded an Honorable Discharge in 2012. “It’s very personal and we all suffer; whether from post-traumatic stress disorder or physical, we all have experienced the same aspects of war.”
Jerry’s battle of adjusting to civilian life meant being a loving husband, father and getting back to work. Prior to his deployment, Jerry ran a successful trucking company. Yet he found himself withdrawing from his wife, kids and society.
“I became reclusive,” he said. “When you go from being a Ranger and doing everything your body can do – to nothing…, it’s hard.” He saw himself leading to what he thought was impending divorce too. “It affected my children. I thought of suicide.”
Unable to walk for 18 months and dependent on a walker, Jerry faced an uphill battle of painful physical therapy. “Being in the military, going 100 mph to nothing is so hard,” he said. “This wasn’t who I was.”
A friend, who noticed what was happening to Jerry, invited him to go fishing with a group of new friends he found in a program called Fishing For Freedom. The program was founded by Leroy Shull, a USA member and IBEW Local 124 retiree, and Larry Stoafer, a retired U.S. Army Major, in partnership with the Leavenworth Bass Club, in Leavenworth, Kan. One of the largest wounded veteran events in the country, it is funded 98% by union labor and provides an opportunity for America’s heroes to spend a day on the lake at no cost. It also offers a relaxed and therapeutic environment to aid in the healing and readjusting process.
“The first year, we invited 30 wounded soldiers,” said Leroy. “It’s a passion that got in my heart, and I knew we had to keep going. When I saw in the soldiers’ eyes and in their faces what we’ve done for them, I said, `bring me a 100 wounded warriors and I’ll get the money.’” Year after year, union brothers and sisters line up to support the annual events as volunteers. Ironically, the program launched in 2009 – the year Jerry returned from Afghanistan.
Trying to encourage Jerry, his friend reminded him how much he used to enjoy fishing.
“I didn’t want to go,” said Jerry. “If you are a family member with a wounded veteran at home and reading this story, get them up and make them do it.”
His friend didn’t take no for an answer and told Jerry’s sergeant.
“She knew what it meant to me to be out and about amongst people,” recalled Jerry. “She ordered me to go and, of course, I wasn’t happy at the time. It was what I needed to do. It truly changed my life.”
Soon after arriving to the docks of Missouri’s Truman Lake, Jerry met Leroy. “Leroy took the time to befriend me,” said Jerry. “I got to relax and enjoy it. This program has put me back on track.”
Since `fishing for freedom,’ Jerry has restarted his trucking company and is celebrating his happy marriage. “I have such a wonderful wife.”
He also learned he is going to be a grandfather. “The good Lord has really granted me the greatest opportunity of my life with this program,” he said. “It saved my life.”
Since his first, Jerry hasn’t missed a Fishing For Freedom event. “Each year I stop whatever I am doing.”
Leroy said he remembers that first day like it was yesterday.
“Jerry was there, walking with a cane. I felt like he had a sense that we could talk when he got a little more comfortable. He eventually opened up to me and shared a story. He is the epitome of what our program is all about. His experience affected all of us in the program,” Leroy said. “It’s a brotherhood.”
To Jerry, being there, seeing people that care and all of the volunteers and soldiers dedicating their time is an inspiration.
“Without guys like Leroy, this program wouldn’t work at all,” said Jerry. “We owe a ton to Leroy and the organization. It’s not us who are the hero,” he said. “We’ve done our job and we are home. It’s them. They are the heroes.”
Leroy has plans for a Fishing For Freedom event at Lake Palestine near Tyler, TX, in March 2015. Union support and volunteers are needed. For more information, contact Leroy Shull at [email protected] or 816.694.5513.