Veterans find fun and solace on Niantic fishing trip
East Lyme — There were a lot of hopes and dreams riding on the BlackHawk on Tuesday, as the boat filled with residents of the Rocky Hill Veterans' Home raced the sun on a late afternoon journey to the mouth of Long Island Sound.
They were chasing different things: bluefish, a sense of peace, a diversion from the routine of institutional living, someone to laugh with, someone to flirt with, and the memory of Niantic more than 50 years in the past.
Jim Moran, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who grew up in Hartford and Simsbury, used to come to Niantic as a young man to fish with his uncle. It was a pastime and a sense of place he took with him overseas to Vietnam, Guam, Japan and Hawaii. Even when nobody else was doing it — which he said was the case in Guam — he'd go out by himself to catch "some beautiful fish."
"I got hooked when I was a young, young boy," he said. "I loved it. Been with it ever since."
The trip, organized by the Northeast Saltwater Fishing club for over a decade now, brought 35 veterans from Rocky Hill on a bus donated by Peter Pan Bus Lines. They were escorted by the Connecticut Patriot Guard Riders.
Ken Hardy, a U.S. Army veteran who served from 1969 to '72 in Germany, Vietnam and Korea, said the trip is a welcome diversion for those who live at the veterans' home. Hardy himself has been there for the past 20 years.
The 483-bed facility provides services including substance abuse treatment, educational and vocational rehabilitation, job skills development, self-enhancement workshops, employment assistance and transitional living opportunities, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We don't get a chance too often to go on something like this," he said. "We look forward to it. All the guys at Rocky Hill love fishing. The majority of them, anyway. Every chance we get, we take them up on it."
BlackHawk owner and captain Greg Dubrule said donating the use of the 75-foot party boat is his way of giving back in an industry that's been good to him. "These veterans look forward to it, and some of these people have really paid the price. I think it's the least we can do," he said.
Ten-year US Navy veteran Vicky Iversen said she came out for a good time more than a good catch: "I just want to have a little fun, do something different." She said fishing is in the blood of many of the veterans, like Moran — but not in hers.
Moran put it this way: "She flits all over the place, talking to everyone. She loves it. So do the guys."
A Vernon native, Iversen said she's been living in Rocky Hill since 2018. Other excursions she's taken while at the veteran's home run the gamut from a 2019 Washington, D.C., trip to showings of the latest movies at a theater in Berlin.
Citing a restless spirit that motivated her to enlist in the first place, she said her favorite part of the service was traveling to places like Australia, Scotland and Spain.
"Some women get married and have kids," she said. "I decided to join the Navy and get the hell out of town."
Jim O'Neil recounted his service the U.S. Navy from 1973 to '81 as an aviation boatswain's mate and in the Connecticut National Guard, 1989-99. He said he was on the USS Nimitz for 142 days in 1979 during the Iran Hostage Crisis, where he watched more helicopters leave than he saw come back.
According to the U.S. Navy, the aircraft carrier was dispatched to the Indian Ocean on Sept. 10 of that year amid heightened tensions with Iran.
O'Neil said he's been at the veterans home, which he refers to as "The Rock," on and off since he first arrived in 1999 for substance abuse treatment. He returned in 2006 when he was diagnosed with what he described as service-related post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders.
On his way onto the boat, the veteran with a catalogue of Disney jokes cast out one more.
"Do you know why Goofy wore two pairs of pants when he went to play golf?" he said. "Because he got a hole in one."
O'Neil said his group of friends at The Rock like being around him because of his sense of humor.
"But deep down inside, I hurt," he said. "That's the way I hide it."
Dubrule said a lot of the veterans at the Rocky Hill facility don't have much, but they have each other.
"It's pretty desolate, I think, from what they tell me," he said. "But I don't really talk to them about that. I don't want them to bring up bad things. I just want them to have a really good time on the boat and forget about that all for a couple hours."
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