Wounded warrior meets challenges head on
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The men clustered at the stern of the boat, watching as the fishing line stretched tight across the murky waters of Mitchell's Cut.
Sgt. James Hudspeth, 39, turned the reel steadily, pulling the line taut, his sharp brown eyes scanning the water carefully. With a jerk of his arms a red fish exploded from beneath the surface.
"It's the first catch of the day," Shane Schroeder, the owner of the boat, said, stepping forward to scoop the fish up with a net.
Hudspeth lifted himself onto his right - and only - leg and hopped to the edge of the boat leaning out to look at his fish, the scales, dripping water, shone iridescent in the sun as it dangled from the line. He grinned, eyes gleaming with quiet pride in his catch.
This trip, the Warrior's Weekend, started three days ago, when the first of more than 300 wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan landed in Houston.
Ron Kocian, the president of Warrior's Weekend, has been conducting the event, a weekend of fishing, camaraderie and appreciation for the veterans, since 2007, so those who had attended it before knew what to expect. But it was a shock to first-timers such as Hudspeth.
Phylis Canion, a Warrior's Weekend board member, was there at the airport with a group of volunteers to greet the soldiers. She and the volunteers don't carry any signs when they're waiting in the baggage claim section of the airport, but they wear Warrior's Weekend T-shirts. Besides, Canion says, they always know which ones are the veterans.
"You can just tell," she said.
Canion, a small, wiry woman, folded burly men more than twice her size into hugs.
"Welcome to Texas! Welcome!"
On Friday morning, when all of the veterans had been collected from the airport, the group, complete with a police escort, was loaded onto buses headed for the Field of Honor Ceremony in Victoria.
During the drive to Victoria, the buses, escorted by police and hundreds of motorcycles, moved through towns like Ganado and Edna where townspeople lined the streets, waving flags and cheering for the soldiers.
They tried to wave back through the tinted windows, Brandon Ancarn said.
"We weren't even sure they could see us, but I made sure to wave," Ancarn said.
Every time they left the bus, the veterans, easily identifiable by their Warrior's Weekend shirts, were cheered and thanked and greeted with hugs.
Hudspeth had no idea what to expect when he and his sister, Kim White, agreed to fly from Washington D.C., where Hudspeth is recovering from surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to a weekend of fishing with other wounded veterans in Port O'Connor.
"It was overwhelming. I just couldn't believe it," Hudspeth said. "It was almost too much," he said, noting how he and the other soldiers would nervously scan the crowds, a little wary of even the friendliest of gatherings.
It's in a soldier's nature to seek control of a situation, he said. All of them had to let go of that need, accepting hugs and waving to cheering audiences. It took some getting used to, Hudspeth said.
Still, it was nice to be acknowledged, he said.
On Saturday morning, the soldiers gathered on the docks outside Froggie's Bait Shop in Port O'Connor. Countless volunteers piloted more than 200 boats puttering around the loading docks of the marina, waiting to take the soldiers fishing.
Justin Schroeder and his father Shane, of Victoria, came down to cheer the soldiers last year. Watching them board the boats, the two decided they would volunteer to take soldiers fishing next year.
"I just wanted to give something back. They've given so much to us. This seemed like the least we could do," Justin said.
Once the snacks were loaded up, the Schroeders, Hudspeth and his sister were flying across the water in search of good fishing.
Hudspeth, with an open face, and sharp, intelligent eyes, has been in the Army for 20 years. On active duty through most of those years, he'd been lucky - he'd never been injured.
"I went for my second tour in Iraq, and I fully expected to come back injured. I just figured it would happen," Hudspeth said.
It was 2006, and Hudspeth was 30 days shy of finishing his second tour of duty in Iraq. Standing on the street in Ramadi, directing the soldiers in his command to cover the perimeter, Hudspeth was just stepping forward when the IED exploded.
He knew he'd made a mistake when everything - his breathing, his pulse, time itself - seemed to slow down.
"All I could see was gray dust and an orange glow, and I realized I'd been standing on top of a bomb," he said.
Now, fishing rod in hand, Hudspeth can smile about the moment that cost him a leg.
His body in shock, Hudspeth couldn't feel where the blast had obliterated most of his left ankle. He was making jokes even as the medics cut him out of his uniform.
"I told my commanding officer, 'I'm happy! I've been praying I'd get hurt! I mean, I've got four daughters! College is paid for.'" Hudspeth recalled, laughing. "I was more hoping for just a scratch, though."
He didn't know how bad things were for almost a week. His ankle had been almost obliterated by the blast, but doctors said they thought they could save the foot. Then they couldn't. A doctor walked into an examination room and told him the foot would have to come off. Hudspeth quickly made the decision to amputate his entire left leg below the knee.
"I gave myself five seconds to cry. You have to grieve for the lost limb, but then that was it," he said.
He tells his story with pride, and, since then, he hasn't let the lost limb stop him from doing anything.
"Maybe it's because I'm infantry, but I always like a challenge," he said, and he meets the challenge head on, and encourages other wounded veterans to do the same. "I try to let them know that this is just the beginning of their lives. They've lost a limb, but this isn't the end."
He doesn't let the loss of his leg stop him from doing anything. If someone says he can't do it, it just makes him try harder, he said.
He ended up back in surgery and on crutches last month because he was so focused on running, he tore the meat from the bone by the sheer force he put on the prosthetic attached to his left thigh.
After hours of fishing, joking with the Schroeders and teasing and laughing with his sister, it was time to go back to shore.
Justin Schroeder toted Hudspeth's Redfish to the weigh-in station, and they waited in line, chatting with other veterans about their catch.
For Hudspeth and the other veterans, the weekend was also a chance to be surrounded by people who speak the same language - who know about the military hospitals, the surgeries, and the delicate balance between acknowledging their injuries and ignoring them.
"Civilians don't always understand what this is like," Hudspeth said. When a group of veterans get together they don't have to explain themselves to each other - they've been through the same things, so they just know.
Matias Ferreira, who is also in recovery at Walter Reed, walked up. Five months after losing his legs in Afghanistan, Ferreira, 22, is still learning to balance on two black prosthetic limbs.
"I didn't do too bad," he said, gesturing to four fish carried by a small girl who followed him.
The weekend was about fishing, but it was more than that, Ferreira said.
"I'd definitely suggest this to anyone who is going through something like this. It takes your mind off of things. It makes you see the big picture," Ferreira said.