‘Medicine You Can’t Buy Anywhere’

With co-op help, Reel American Heroes Foundation strikes blow for wounded warriors

Ron DeFreitas, recognized by electric co-ops for his commitment to community, stands with daughter Ashley Gardner, executive director of the Reel American Heroes Foundation. (Photo By: Bill Sherrod)

When Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Witt lost use of his right arm after a motorcycle accident earlier this year, one of the things he missed most was taking his two sons fishing.

The lifelong angler had moved to Knott’s Island, North Carolina, for just that purpose. Since the crash, however, “I was sitting in my house, surrounded by water, not doing anything,” said Witt, who’s based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

But through a civilian contractor who takes wounded warriors fishing, Witt acquired a one-armed reel designed by Reel American Heroes Foundation. Life “changed 180 degrees. I’ve increased my outdoor activity tenfold, I get fresh air and I spend time with my kids. I’ve even caught a bunch of fish.”

Ron DeFreitas is founder of Reel American Heroes Foundation and lead designer of the Wounded Hero Fishing System, a reel with a battery-powered electric motor attached to a rod that’s light but sturdy enough to endure multiple casts.

It’s been his dream to patent the reel, and thanks to the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives in Glen Allen, Virginia, that dream is one step closer to reality.

A patent attorney read about DeFreitas and Reel Americans in Reel Americans in Co-op Living, the association’s monthly magazine, and his efforts to patent the one-armed fishing system.

“He then brought the magazine to the office to discuss it with the other partners,” in his Washington, D.C., law firm, said DeFreitas. “They had a meeting and voted unanimously to do the patent work for us.”

While the foundation would expect to pay about $2,000 in application and filing fees, the pro bono work will save about $25,000. And that means more resources for recreational programs for wounded warriors like Troy “Doc” Bigham.

The Reel American Heroes Fishing Tournament is held each July. Wounded warriors are teamed with an experienced angler, one per boat. (Photo By:: Bill Sherrod)

The Navy Hospital corpsman has participated in annual Reel American Heroes Fishing Tournament for three years. Now in its seventh year, the tournament pairs 75 to 80 wounded warriors with a seasoned angler. Amputees are outfitted with the special rod and reel; wheelchair-bound entrants are secured to the angler’s boat.

This year, Bigham and his partner, Tank Mosely, placed first in the weigh-off.

“We were a team the first year but we didn’t do so well. My second year I was paired with someone else. And this year, we teamed up again, and it was our redemption year. We had a plan and stuck to it,” said Bigham, who suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and lives in Fort Washington, Maryland.

Wounded warriors rave about the event and how it stimulates a feeling of pride and fellowship, not unlike what they found in the military.

“I don’t feel threatened, there’s no stress and we all have the same goal,” said Bigham, who fishes with Mosely during the year, too. “We joke and trash talk and swap stories. We can all relate to each other. That’s a medicine you can’t buy anywhere.”

Earlier this year, DeFreitas, a member of Manassas-based Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, received the 2016 Good Samaritan Award from Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.

The Good Samaritan Award honors individuals whose body of good work has been so selfless and life-changing to others that it is held up as a gold standard of philanthropic community service.

Petty Officer First Class Thomas Witt shows a fish he caught in the Wounded Hero Fishing System. (Photo By: Ron DeFreitas)

“Ron exemplifies the seventh cooperative principle of concern for community. We are proud to recognize his inspirational leadership that has made such a difference for our nation’s servicemen and women,” said Richard G. Johnstone Jr., president and CEO of the statewide.

Not unlike the wounded warriors, DeFreitas is facing his own struggles. Last year, he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic prostate cancer and, shortly after surgery, with Type II diabetes.

Now, his daughter, Ashley Gardner, runs the foundation’s daily operations, while her father works on corporate sponsorships and fundraising—when he isn’t recovering from one of six rounds of chemotherapy and 38 radiation treatments.

“We will know his prognosis in about one-and-a-half years,” said Gardner, a school nurse for the Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia and a mother of two toddlers. Her firefighter husband oversees Reel American’s annual fishing tournament.

“The foundation keeps him going. To see his dreams get to this level … it gives him strength to go on.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.