Sept. 11, 2005 What do five Marines, one sailor, big fish and St. Thomas have in common? They are part of the Billfishing Xtreme Release League Tournament's Purple Heart Challenge, hosted in the territory by ESPN2.
"We were told by the local Department of Tourism that we had to come up with a unique event in order to hold our annual Billfishing tournament here in St. Thomas," Mike Gautreaux, coordinator of the Challenge, which started this weekend, said. "So this is what I came up with. We've invited six soldiers down here to participate in their own fishing challenge."
"It is something special that we're doing for those people who have risked their lives out there in the war for us," Gautreaux, added. "We wanted to show them how much we appreciate their service and everything they've sacrificed to protect us. These guys have all been to Iraq, they've all been injured over there, they've all been awarded the Purple Heart, and they deserve this."
A former marine himself, Gautreaux said he started the process by looking up some old contacts at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. "We put the announcement that we were looking for volunteers for this tournament through their military system, and I was told that there were so many soldiers who wanted to participate."
So, Gautreaux left the selection process up to the heads of the camp's subunits, and continued planning the event in St. Thomas with help from Navy League heads Tom Hoffman and Michael Lesmeister. "We worked on getting everything for these guys, from foodand Gourmet Gallery on St. Thomas helped a lot with thatto working with U.S. Airways so they could get their tickets upgraded," Hoffman, the Navy League's regional director and president, said. "Anything to help our soldiers."
"We're really excited to have them here," Lesmeister, president of the St. Thomas-St. John chapter of the Navy League, said.
Prior to their arrival, however, no one had met the Purple Heart participants. "I don't even know how these guys were selected," Gautreaux said.
Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Hillard filled Gautreaux in on some of the process when the team landed at Cyril E. King Airport on Saturday afternoon. "We were elected by our officials to come down here and represent the Marine Corps and we all have different leadership positions, so we represent all the aspects of our infantrymen."
Hillard added that the group had also never been offered an opportunity like this before. "We're grateful that our officers at Camp Lejeune all wanted us to come. We were happy to do the job, especially when we heard we were coming down to the Virgin Islands."
"It really is a chance of a lifetime," Jesse Jordan, junior enlisted military policeman, said. "It's definitely a change from our North Carolina environment."
Coming off the plane Saturday, the servicemen were greeted by a bevy of people, including the media, Navy League and Tourism officials, ESPN representatives, and Sen. Shawn Michael Malone. "This is definitely overwhelmingwe're not used to having so much publicity on a personal level," 1st Lt. John Flanagan said. "But I am looking forward to this because every person in the Marine Corps has sacrificed, and I think we deserve this."
When asked how the men feel about competing against each other, they all laughed. "Well, we're all very competitive by nature," Flanagan said. "But we all know that I'm going to win."
Gautreaux said that the Purple Heart Challenge was also formed to raise awareness for the Semper Fi Fund, a federal program that awards money to the families of injured marines. "The show will be broadcast in early 2006, and when people tune in, we will have the name of the fund and how people can contribute to it flashing on the screen. It really is something worthwhile that the public should know about."
"It's something that benefits so many military families," Lance Cpl. Paul Volpe said. "I'm really proud to be participating in something that contributes to the Marine Corps."
Other participants in the Purple Heart Challenge are Chief Hospitalman Christopher Olinger, and Lance Cpl. Daniel Votrobek, both stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Once the soldiers depart the territory, Gautreaux explained, the BXRL will remain on St. Thomas to continue with regular billfishing tournament events started earlier this year in Key Largo. "This is the fourth stage of the billfishing competition. We've had the other three events in different locations, and whichever team wins this stage in St. Thomas will move on to the finals in Venezuela."
All events will be held at the Bolongo Bay Resort in St. Thomas, another contributor. "They've donated so much for us," Norm Isaacs, the tournament's founder said. "They've provided the time, the space, the staff, and we are thankful for their help." The V.I. Department of Tourism also contributed some assistance.
The BXRL competition finishes on St. Thomas Sept. 17.
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