FREEPORT — Outdoor support groups for disabled veterans have sprung up nationwide as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least three exist in Maine. The state’s newest, Back in the Maine Stream, is unique in that it is run by veterans with disabilities who take fellow disabled veterans fishing.
Back in the Maine Stream was founded by Marc Bilodeau, 54, who has limited use of his arms and legs. He says the support group really took off when Vietnam veteran Bob Pelletier joined the group’s board of directors.
Both men love to fish. This year alone, they have organized 12 donated fishing trips to their group of Maine veterans, which now numbers 50. The group’s mission statement promises they will “improve the participant’s physical, social and emotional well being through fishing activities and outings. We believe veterans helping veterans improves all of our abilities, physical and emotional.”
Where did you serve in the military, and what are your disabilities?
BOB: I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam for 13 months. I was on the demolition team using explosives. My disability came because of Agent Orange. I contracted diabetes, and I’m working on some smaller (health issues).
MARC: He’s very modest. He won the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valor.
I am a veteran of the Air Force. I served during peacetime from 1978 to 1982. I contracted my disability when I was leaving the service in 1982. I got a flu shot at Togus on the way out, and it paralyzed me. I was on life support. I couldn’t use my hands or walk. I was 23 in 1982, and I recovered 100 percent. But the last thing they said to me at Togus was, ‘You can get this again.’ Then 20 years later I did. I was working for a Fortune 500 company, and the next thing I knew I was paralyzed. I was on life support for three months.
How did Back in the Maine Stream start?
MARC: It started with Project Healing Waters, a national group. We were both on their trip. But they only come to Maine once a year. I had been very discouraged. I couldn’t fish because of my disability. They dragged me out on a rock, put a fly rod in my hand. I was kind of miserable. It took me an hour to catch a 3-inch bass. Then it was so emotional, I cried like a baby. And I realized, I was back, and who was gonna stop me now?
That was on the Rapid River six years ago. Then I started talking to other Maine veterans. (Back in the Maine Stream) started three years ago. We were at the King and Bartlett (Fish and Game Club) this summer. We had 20 guys and gals there.
BOB: We also were in Danforth at a lodge. We fished three days there. One of the veterans was blind. We fished the Fish River and Chamberlain Lake this year with another guide. We had four veterans on that trip.
What’s most striking about the work you do with other disabled veterans?
MARC: It’s interesting the difference you see on these fishing trips. People come in and you see their attitude change. They will come in grumpy and leave happy. Something happens.
BOB: You’ve got guys with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, with brain injuries, guys who are visually impaired. We get them fishing and none of that pertains.
We had one gal join us, I won’t use her name. She is one tough cookie. No one goes near her. She came up to me after one trip and said, ‘Get your camera ready.’ Then she came up and gave me a hug.
These problems just don’t exist when people are fishing.
What is the spirit of these gatherings?
BOB: Marc and I rag on each other a lot. We can. We had one veteran who lost his hands. When he came out of the washroom I said, ‘You wash your hands?’ He goes, ‘Yup.’ But he hasn’t any. He knows where I’ve been. I know where he’s been. It’s really hard to explain to people who haven’t been in the military. They don’t understand. But I know the sacrifices he made.
You both come from a generation of servicemen and women who weren’t always celebrated. Bob, you saw that after returning from Vietnam. Do you see a change in public sentiment toward those in the service today?
BOB: I want to give back to my generation. We were kicked in the butt when we came home. This is an opportunity to help Vietnam veterans, and Afghanistan veterans and Iraq veterans, men and women, peacetime and wartime. We’re all brothers and sisters … (stops abruptly). I get emotional about it.
Do you feel the public is appreciative of the military today?
BOB: Really, to this day I don’t think they appreciated what I did. I think they are realizing that they didn’t. Today I see what’s being done for all the younger folks. We missed a whole bunch of people that got nothing. This is my chance to give back to these people. My generation didn’t get anything. We don’t want that to happen again.
Where do you think this will be in 10 years?
BOB: The sky’s the limit.
MARC: I’ve never been someone who wondered what can I do for others. But I am now.