Former Utah Air Guardsman receives trip through Wounded Warriors Program
By Anne Morrison, Hilltop Times Staff
/ Published September 18, 2011
ALASKA -- Two of Utah's own wounded Airmen recently went on a weeklong fishing trip in Alaska as a token of appreciation for their service. As part of the Department of Defense's Wounded Warrior program, 14 members of each military branch were sent to a remote Alaskan fishing lodge for a week on flights purchased and contributed by the Pentagon Federal Credit Union. Sally and Jeff Appel own the lodge and donated the nearly $5,000 per person trip to the group.
The Air Force's Wounded Warrior program defines a wounded warrior as someone who has "a combat/hostile-related injury resulting from hazardous service or performance of duty under conditions simulating war or through an instrumentality of war."
Tech. Sgt. Jason Butterfield, a former Utah Air Guardsman with the 151st Air Refueling Wing, became a part of that classification after his MRAP rolled, crushing his left arm while on a mission in February of 2009. The injury happened when his convoy was ambushed while traveling along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After being transferred from the crash site to hospitals in Kandahar, then Germany then the U.S., Butterfield's doctors were able to save his arm from amputation through nine reconstructive surgeries. And after countless hours of physical therapy, Butterfield has regained 20 percent mobility in his hand.
In return their acts of service, Butterfield and 13 others were chosen for the trip.
"This is something I could have only hoped to go on someday," Butterfield said about receiving the call from his RCC at Hill, Tracy Wingert. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Out in the wilderness
Once they touched down at the airport in Fairbanks, the Appels drove them an hour into the Unalakleet Fishing Lodge, where their cell phones no longer worked, getting cut off from all electronic communication with the outside world. Butterfield said he and the others were happy to be away from their phones and emails for a week of solitude, catching a break from the busy buzz of everyday life.
"You could tell a lot of people felt a lot more comfortable," he said.
Mike Mack, the resource care coordinator (RCC) at Eglin Air Force Base, went with the two Airmen to Alaska and said the experience was incredible. Mack said his favorite part of the trip was to be able to see everyone unwind from the stress of their lives.
"Everybody got to be themselves," he said.
Mack also said he was hearing comments like, "I haven't had nightmares since I've been here," and noticed a lot of the guys becoming more relaxed as the week went on. The best moments, he said, were around the dinner table where "everybody got to be themselves."
A daily routine
The days usually began with breakfast, and then they headed out in pairs with their guide to fish around 8 a.m. with a break for lunch, and then back out until dinner time. Each military member was given a fishing license for the week, signed personally by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. And each wounded warrior took home about 40 pounds of fish after catching at least 300 fish apiece over the course of the week.
Both Butterfield and Mack said the owners, Sally and Jeff Appel, were engaged and personable with the guys, making themselves present at meals and downtime during the trip.
Besides fishing, everyone learned how to make flies one evening. Some used them during the trip while others took them home as souvenirs. Throughout the week, the 14 got to bond and talk about the issues they face on a daily basis as wounded veterans. Butterfield mentioned how good it was to be around other wounded warriors.
"You felt what they felt, they felt what you felt," he said. "You don't meet or see people who have been in your situation."
He said it helped him to solidify that there are other people out there who are going through the same things he is. Butterfield and the others exchanged contact information and said he keeps in contact with the guys he went on the trip with.
"It just opened up a whole different pathway of help."
Currently, Butterfield is working and going to school at the University of Utah, studying to work for the FBI.
Both Mack and Butterfield said everyone in the group enjoyed the week.
"This is a trip they'll never forget," said Mack.
Sally Appel had done something similar to this trip four years ago with a group of Marines, but when a reservation was canceled late, she figured it was time for another one. So, she called up a contact at the DoD and asked a few other people to donate some goods.
And before she knew it, Appel was picking up 14 wounded warriors from the airport just six short weeks later. Appel said she was so pleased to have them at the lodge, noting the effect the men had on the staff and herself.
"I'm hoping we changed their life as much as they've changed ours," she said.
Others pitch in
Appel said she was floored at the responsiveness of everyone who helped in the effort. She said she emailed her seafood provider while in town, and the next day she not only had an email back saying, "Yes," she also had 40 pounds of king crab from Norton Sound Seafood sitting on her desk. Budweiser and Alaskan Amber Beer donated their products for the weekend as well.
The reaction of the men was one of disbelief that they were being treated the way they were, Appel said. Mentioning many of the guys kept telling her that never in their wildest dreams had they expected to experience this.
The greatest part, she said, was watching them enjoy the trip.
"They're in a remote situation, no phone, no TV, nothing," said Appel. "It was incredible to see these guys heal. They tell us they're not hurting anymore.
"We sent them off happy and with lots of fish," said Appel.