Elks’ Annual Veterans Fishing Trip About Giving Back

Jun 21, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

In a world where many people go fishing for compliments on social media, there remains a group of men and women who are less comfortable talking about themselves and what they do than most all others combined. They are the men and women of the United States military. Yet fishing is one way the Manahawkin Elks Lodge gives back to those who protect our nation.

For the fourth consecutive year, veterans – active and retired across all branches of the military – met June 15 at the Elks Lodge on Hilliard Boulevard in Manahawkin for some friendly conversation on the porch, at the bar and over a game of pool before heading out to Barnegat Light and a four-hour fishing trip aboard the Carolyn Ann III. To a stranger, they are courteous and welcoming, more than willing to chat about things that matter to them, such as what they’ve done since they’ve been home or retired from service.

That’s what was on Dr. John’s mind as he sat at a table talking with fellow veterans. A retired Marine who was part of a hostage rescue attempt in 1979 Iran and was in Grenada, Beirut and Desert Storm, he is a counselor at Veterans Haven South, a state-operated facility for homeless veterans. Eligible veterans come to the program after a medical evaluation from the VA Medical Center, and must agree to a long-term focus on psychological, social and vocational rehab.The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs runs Veterans Haven South, located in Camden County, and another facility in North Jersey located on top of a scenic mountain in Glen Gardner.

“We work with them (homeless vets, many who come out of prison) until they get back on their feet,” Dr. John said, adding no one calls him by his full name anymore, so he just goes by Dr. John. “The max stay is two years.”

His role is to help them work through their addictions, which include prescription painkillers for the younger vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Vet Haven, as it’s called among its staff and residents, is a drug- and alcohol-free program with random testing for both performed regularly. Violators are immediately released from the program.

“Life changes need to be made,” Dr. John said, and that’s what Vet Haven aims to do – by meeting the challenge of the streets, in shelters and on the frontlines. Vet Haven South, located in Winslow Township, is near capacity with nearly 80 vets. “They learn to put their pain into something positive.”

The program, which Jack Milne, chairman of the Elks Veterans Committee, works with annually to set up the fishing expedition, is divided into three phases: treatment, self-reclamation and community reintegration. Each phase is tailored to the individual treatment and lasts from 90 to 120 days.

“The only criterion is you have to be a vet,” Dr. John said, noting, “New Jersey loves veterans.”

So do the rest of Milne’s Veterans Committee for the Elks Lodge, including Gene Zombay, a Long Beach Island retired Army vet who was drafted at 21 and served with the 1st Calvary Division during Vietnam.

“We have to give back,” Zombay said. “We need to do things like this (the fishing trip). We can’t forget and can’t let it (how Vietnam veterans were treated upon returning home) happen again,” he added. “We’re here for our vets; a lot of them are forgotten in nursing homes.”

Dr. John, who overcame his own set of issues after retiring from the Marine Corps, said Vet Haven residents who participate in the annual fishing trip “love it.”

“They never thought they could live like this (functionally). Events like this leave an impression” that people care.

— Gina G. Scala


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