Patrick Orth, a Marine combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient, had never been in a fighting chair before. Few of the marines on the 51-foot sportfisherman that day had. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell by watching him. Orth looked like a natural, sitting with knees slightly bent, leaning forward, throwing his weight back with each rhythmic pump of the rod. A vast expanse of ocean stretched out in every direction.
Up came the mahi-mahi. The mate leaned over the side of the Forbes and gaffed the fish, then sent it wheeling into the fishbox.
“That your first mahi?” a mate asked.
“This is my first time being on a sportfishing boat,” said Orth, a 31-year-old former Marine Corps lance corporal from Asheville, North Carolina. He stood there grinning. “That’s wild.”
He got up from the fighting chair and took his place with the other veterans relaxing in the shade of the flybridge overhang. He sat on the gunwale. Someone handed him a beer.
“That’s badass,” said Orth after a moment’s reflection. “You already got five stars in my book.”
On this particular day, eight combat veterans were getting a taste for offshore fishing while trolling on two boats along the edge of the Gulf Stream, about 60 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. They came from near and far, some as close as Charleston and others from neighboring states, to spend the day with other veterans on the water. All had seen combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. Many had earned a Purple Heart for being injured in the line of duty. And many, if not all, still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
These veterans were invited to join the trip by Operation WetVet. Based in Miami, the nonprofit was started by Osvaldo “Ozzie” Martinez Jr., a 35-year-old former Marine Corps Corporal, after he returned home from Iraq. Martinez knows plenty about PTSD from personal experience; he’s struggled with the condition for 10 years. At first, the organization was conceived as a way for him to bond with his brothers-in-arms, the guys he served with in Iraq. When he saw the benefits a day at sea had on his fellow marines, Operation WetVet quickly evolved into a nonprofit with a larger goal.
Out on the water, veterans could try to master an adrenalized situation—a sailfish jumping, for example—and Martinez could potentially use it as a teaching moment, to show other combat veterans that there is a difference between positive and negative adrenaline. “The reason I chose offshore fishing over inshore and backcountry is for the excitement of watching that fish jump and hearing the reel scream,” said Martinez. “These veterans need to recognize [offshore fishing] as a good adrenaline rush. Most of the time for us, [a negative rush is produced when] a muffler makes a loud sound or somebody slams a door. I want to teach these guys how to function with their PTSD, because this doesn’t go away. We’re going to live with it forever.”
I first met Martinez at a bar on the Charleston waterfront, where, every so often, a loud thwack signaled a new game of pool starting. They were closing the bar, and as one of the bartenders carried in an American flag from outside, a heavy door slammed shut with a loud bang. Martinez jumped and looked around wildly. “Shit,” he muttered.
In Iraq, in 2004, Martinez served with the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division. He got his first taste of the war as part of a massive convoy along Highway 80, a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq that had been used by U.S. and British forces during the initial stages of the 2003 invasion. Remnants of the destruction—smashed vehicles, blackened holes from bomb blasts, and charred remains—still littered the area.
“It didn’t feel real,” said Martinez. “It felt like something out of a movie set.”
The marines in his unit called him “combat camera,” because of the digital Nikon camera he had brought with him. Some of those pictures—each one time-stamped in the corner with the time and date—he had saved on his phone. He showed me a few of the images.
One showed a 23-year-old Martinez outside of Camp Fallujah. Another showed him sitting next to a smiling, handsome marine at base camp, where they would watch episodes of The Sopranos and any movies they could get on DVD. With the whitewashed brick walls behind them, it could’ve easily been mistaken for a college dorm room. The picture was time-stamped August 12, 2004.
“This guy right here, Puckett, he died less than a month after that picture was taken,” said Martinez. “That’s his last living picture.”
The sun was barely above the horizon when we left Ripley Light Yacht Club in Charleston, where the charter boats Family Tradition and Little Less Talking were docked. It was around 4:30 a.m. and the conversation was sparse. Steven Diaz sat on a helm chair on the flybridge. In Iraq, Diaz was a corporal in a Marine platoon assigned to convoy security. He had been searching and clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) when one exploded under his Humvee. The blast left him blind in one eye.
Diaz appeared to be having a great time. He had brought a flag with him, at one point unfurling it with the help of Orth. Most of the vets on board seemed to be joining Diaz in the moment, ribbing each other, occasionally laughing, and trading war stories.
Trips like these are essential for “guys to regain that camaraderie,” said Diaz. “For us, that’s the biggest thing that we miss. Especially when you’ve been in combat. When we’re in situations like [this one], where we’re given a goal and an objective, and there’s a little bit of danger, it makes us open up.”
I was reminded of my conversation with Martinez prior to coming down. “Don’t make it seem like you’re just talking to them because of their injuries,” said Martinez. “We hate that. I’ve had guys tell me, ‘If that’s what you’re about, a dog-and-pony show, I don’t want to be a part of it; I don’t want you taking me fishing.’ We don’t like feeling used.”
Diaz had helped Martinez by reaching out to some of the veterans for this trip, including the gregarious, upbeat Orth. He had grown up fishing, he said, hunting for largemouth bass with his father. “For a lot of my free time, when I got home from Iraq, I was in the river fishing,” he said. “Fishing does help out a lot, honestly. It takes your mind off stuff that you got problems with. Most of the time, being out on the water and stuff like that—it’s relaxing.”
I took note of another veteran on the boat. At first glance, Sergeant Vernon Miller, a tall, quiet, 31-year-old former infantry machine gunner from Greenville, South Carolina, appeared introverted and reserved. As if he was straddling two different worlds.
“Miller was special forces, did he tell you?” asked Diaz. We were on the predawn run to the fishing grounds, and the guys were arrayed around the flybridge, grasping the handrails. Miller was there in the group, but I couldn’t tell if he could hear us talking over the wind and engines. The following week he was going to have the nerve endings on the right side of his back cauterized to help manage his back pain, a nagging injury he sustained over three deployments. He gazed at the horizon and didn’t say much.
We started the morning trolling for mahi, but the action was a little slow. By late morning, only two of the veterans had hooked a fish. So we moved inshore to a reef and jigged for amberjack.
The men relaxed and talked and laughed. Each veteran had been taking his turn in the chair, then jigging, in an orderly fashion while the others sat around and watched. Out here there was order. There was a system. What there wasn’t: civilians to misunderstand, or pickup trucks that could be mistaken for insurgent vehicles. Out here, 25 miles offshore, they could leave their land-based concerns behind, at least for a few hours.
The day prior, Martinez and I chartered a helicopter from Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, located across the Cooper River from Charleston. He was excited, in part because the next day’s weather forecast was calling for a nice day. Heading out across the bay, the helicopter pilot pointed out good fishing areas in the marsh. Martinez hadn’t been on a helicopter since a chance training opportunity as a young corporal. Leaning over so only I could hear, the chopper blades drowning out any other noise, he whispered: “The worst part of being in the military is being a 20-year-old kid and signing your own will. That’s a wake-up call, man.”
After returning home in 2006 from two tours in Iraq, Martinez suffered from depression. His company had taken the most casualties out of his battalion, and he says he had survivor’s guilt. He put on weight. He was living fast, drinking and partying. But he didn’t understand the extent of his PTSD until two years later, when he was reactivated by the Marines. He was on a plane bound for Kansas City, where he learned that in one month he would be deployed to Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers.
“I started having anxiety attacks and nightmares, because now I was no longer repressing it,” Martinez said.
In time, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) gave Martinez a PTSD rating of 70 percent. Shortly afterward, he received a letter stating he no longer met the physical and mental requirements for the Marines. He was “non-deployable.” But the nightmares and anxiety attacks persisted. Since returning home, he had tried to mask his fears by self-medicating with alcohol and psychotropic drugs administered by the VA. Neither worked.
Martinez would drink himself into a stupor and pore over the more than 3,000 pictures he’d taken in Iraq, ruminating over the friends he lost. Unable to relate to friends and family back home in Miami, he withdrew. He was self-medicating into oblivion. His wife eventually kicked him out. His son had just been born, and he said he had trouble finding joy in life. Martinez and his wife separated. He moved in with his grandfather and shut down, barely interacting with the outside world.
When a friend he hadn’t spoken to in years called him up to go lobstering, he almost said no. Martinez had just returned from a camping trip in Redding, California, with other guys in his platoon, where he learned that one of their brothers-in-arms had committed suicide. Finally, he was around marines who had a shared experience as his own.
In California, he realized that not only was he repressing his PTSD, but many of the guys he served with were as well. He had grown up fishing in Miami, and going lobstering with his friend gave him an idea. Maybe he could channel the camaraderie he felt on that trip, including the straightforward talks about PTSD he’d had with fellow Marines, into a fishing experience for other combat veterans.
His first offshore fishing trip was out of Key Largo, with 20 veterans from the Miami Vet Center. From there, his idea took shape. He asked the counselors from the Miami Vet Center to accompany him on his fishing trips. Being anglers themselves, they were only too happy to help. Martinez brainstormed a little and came up with the current symbol of Operation WetVet: a sportfishing boat carrying four rods in its rocket launcher, with the outlines of three veterans—one missing, symbolic of the guys who didn’t make it back—in front of a rising sun.
Operation WetVet had given him a purpose. Helping other combat veterans with their PTSD was helping him come to terms with his own issues. Martinez started seeing a therapist, and eventually he and his wife reconciled. He is now the father of two boys. Over time, more charter captains had been donating charters to Operation WetVet, widening the scope from Miami to Charleston and other cities across the country. The future looks promising.
“A lot of these guys are in dark places similar to my own,” said Martinez. “Statistics are all over the place, but the number you see people doing push-up challenges for is twenty-two. Twenty-two veterans a day [take their own lives]. Whatever the figure is, there are veterans committing suicide every day due to PTSD. I’m not trying to just get these guys fishing. Every one I’ve taken out on these trips I’m still in contact with. They have my personal number. I’m letting these guys know that they’re not alone.”
See more from out time with Operation WetVet in the photo gallery below:
In Iraq, on one of his eight-hour patrols, Martinez’s unit had come across an IED connected to a cable. Following the cable to the source, the marines found a man teaching his seven-year-old son how to detonate the device. “They were just sitting there,” said Martinez. They were filled with hate. Operation WetVet was founded with the opposite intention in mind: to teach those suffering from the ghosts of war how to find peace.
It was late afternoon when we slowly made our way back to the Ripley Light Yacht Club, where a group of people had assembled on the docks. One of the charter captains thanked the veterans for their service. Others echoed his sentiments. A big American flag billowed in the breeze.
I wanted to talk to Vernon Miller, but couldn’t find him. He had already left.
A couple of days later I received a text from Miller, recounting what it was like to reacclimate to civilian life. Sometimes he would attend a group therapy session at the VA and listen to the other guys talk, but he never could bring himself to say anything. But sessions like those and outings like this fishing trip helped. “Events like this let you know you’re not alone,” he wrote, “and link you up with brothers in the same shoes who you can reach out to and they can reach out to you.”
He continued, “It’s just a reminder you’re not alone and that’s the most important thing for guys to realize. At least it was for me, and still is today.”
For more information on Operation WetVet, and for details on what you can do to support the cause, please visit operationwetvet.org;