For a week each May, 70 veterans are provided the opportunity to put aside physical and mental disabilities and enjoy a fishing experience at Lake Rathbun. Casting Away Disabilities, a privately funding program through the Veteran’s Administration, was back at Honey Creek Resort on Lake Rathbun, making a visit to Albia on Tuesday evening for a dinner at the American Legion and a visit to the Welcome Home Soldier monument.
It is the third year of a five-year contract with Honey Creek and 70 veterans, another 70 sponsors and a number of local volunteers were treating the veterans to incredible fishing at the lake. Former Lake Miami Park administrator and now DNR park ranger at Honey Creek, C.J. Hughes, has been instrumental in bringing the event to the lake.
“It’s pretty amazing the help we get,” he said. “Forty-three boats were volunteered for us to use by people throughout Appanoose and Monroe Counties. The Albia American Legion provides a great night for the guys. It’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever been a part of.”
Casting Away Disabilities Director Kirk Sickels, a 38-year veteran of the VA system, said that Hughes and his volunteers are the lynch-in of the event. Hughes also helps set up the Casting Away Disabilities deer hunt through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources around Lake Rathbun.
“I’m so danged happy with how things are going,” said Sickels. Disabled veterans from WWII through the present are part of the 70 enjoying the week. Most are from Iowa, but the area Sickels manages includes North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri.
Hughes said the veterans are matched up with boats (including pontoon boats for wheelchair bound vets) and guides who know the lake well. “They’ve been knocking the heck out of wipers and crappie in the first two days,” said Hughes who well knows how difficult Rathbun is to fish. “With the rain and cold coming in, it could get a lot tougher the next couple of days.”
Sickels, who has been working with Casting Away Disabilities for 18 years, said the events are life changing for disabled veterans. “We have guys here who haven’t been out of their homes for years,” he said. “The come out and are surrounded by fellow veterans facing the same issue they face and suddenly they no longer feel stared at. They’re now part of the norm.”
Disabilities range from issues related to aging, to PTSD and traumatic brain injury and the loss of limbs from combat and diseases like diabetes. The oldest veteran in the group was a highly decorated 96-year-old vet from WWII.
The group arrived in Albia Tuesday evening in a steady drizzle of rain, were helped inside the American Legion where they enjoyed a meal of hot beef sandwich and homemade pie, then some bingo. The plan was to take the group to the Welcome Home Soldier site, but the weather was not cooperating. A big fish fry was planned for Wednesday after an attempt at fishing, then more fishing on Thursday and Friday.