Staff photo by Allison Breiner Potter
Soldiers and the crew of Pole Position gather with their catch on Friday evening, Nov. 5, at the 4th annual Hope for the Warriors Oorah vs. Hooah, "This Time it’s for Reel," Fishing Battle. Above: .
A wild white path parts the ocean where black water and a dull gray sky meet to form an otherwise perfect horizon. There is nothing else. The tallest building anchored to the land is no longer within viewing distance. There are no trees. No buildings. No sidewalks or streets. Out here, you chart your own course.
Kevin Autry is scared something might go wrong. He’s never been on a real boat before, only on boats with girls—the romantic-type, he said, "like rowboats and paddleboats."
It was only a few months ago that Autry, a 29-year-old lance corporal, flew over these same seas to another unfamiliar place. A place with dirt streets full of people, many of them scared for their lives. And then unexpectedly, only two and a half months after his arrival in Afghanistan, Autry was back on the plane headed home.
Things are different now, after seeing another world—one most people have only experienced through their TVs.
Autry is one of three Marines aboard the Thunder in the 4th annual Hope for the Warriors Oorah vs. Hooah, "This Time it’s for Reel," Fishing Battle in Wrightsville Beach on Nov. 5. While onboard, he grabs his left wrist with his right hand and clenches his fist—open and shut, open and shut—to gain sensation in his extremities. When his palm lays face up, his scars reveal where he has been.
"You got any bananas on this boat?" Autry asked, "Never been on a big boat, but I do know bananas are bad luck."
The crew laughed.
"No," said Scott Toomer, co-captain with his father.
And Autry continued talking, mostly about sharks and boats sinking—like on the movie "Titanic." In this new world, as the sun pushed past the horizon, Autry, slowly calming, said, "I’ve never seen water that blue before, only on TV."
And then Captain Allan Toomer, U.S. Navy veteran and owner of the 55-foot, 11-year-old Ricky Gillikin sportfishing boat named Thunder, climbed down from the tower, "You’re now 200-feet deep and 65 miles from Wrightsville Beach."
Autry, more aware of his inability to leave the boat, looked scared but continued to speak.
"That’s what we do," Autry said speaking of himself and his fellow Marines, "Make sure everybody’s safe."
"Well today," Scott Toomer butted in, "We’re going to return the favor."
"Oorah," Autry said in salute.
"Everybody wish me luck," Autry spoke out again, but this time about Afghanistan. "I’m going to have my seventh surgery, Nov. 24."
On July 29, 2010, Autry was in the field engaged in an L-shaped ambush when members of the Taliban began to fire. Two bullets entered his left hand and collided in his wrist. One hit his right pinky; another went into his hip and another in his heel.
Autry will never gain feeling in two of his fingers and he’ll never be able to run.
"I wouldn’t change it for nothing," Autry explained. "I risked my life to make sure my guys keep fighting." Now, Autry said, he is just recovering and waiting for his unit to get back.
"My guys are still over there. They’ll be home in January," he furthered. "But the good news about all of this—I met some good people and some bad people. I also got a lot closer to the people I didn’t know—from all different branches."
Autry joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2008 because, he said, he "couldn’t deal with what was going on."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Autry, a New York City native and paramedic, was called to ground zero. For Autry, that day was a turning point. Not only did he lose an aunt, but Autry’s job as an EMT changed from one that worked to save lives to a chaotic nightmare.
"I never lost anybody ‘til 9/11," Autry said. "When 9/11 happened, I lost so many bodies. That’s kind of why I joined (the Marines)."
After coming back to the U.S. this year, Autry said, "I met a lot of mean people that think it’s not right to go to war. I hear it all the time. But you gotta do what you gotta do. The reason I joined the service is so my son wouldn’t make the mistakes I did and for the people who don’t want to join, to give them a hope of life."
Lance Corporal Justin Thomas, 22, said he joined because it seemed cool at the time. But after a bullet entered and exited his shoulder and another shattered a bone in his arm, he admitted he can’t wait to go home. Thomas has one year left, though, and during it he hopes to go back to war.
"Everything’s easier over there. I’m too hard-headed," he said, to let it change him. "It depends on what your mindset is. As long as you have a good humor you’ll come out the same. Some do. Some don’t."
Lance Corporal Douglas Davis, 20, complained that his shoulder, where he was also shot, still hurts in cold weather.
"Everybody tells me I’m different now," Autry said. "I don’t see it, but I used to be the one joking. I don’t joke anymore."
When his turn came to sit in the fighting chair, Autry was suddenly silent as he grabbed the rod with both hands. He reeled in the 45-pound wahoo until it was on deck—his first big fish.
Rob Tennille, delivery captain and mate who had an ACL replacement just two weeks ago, said his doctors advised him not to use his knee for four months and begged him not to go on the fishing trip.
"This is nothing," Tennille said, "Compared to them. And I’ll tell you the reason I’m doing this again. I’ll never forget when I was captaining a boat… I handed the wheel over to a Marine and when I looked back he had the biggest smile I’d ever seen. And I said, ‘Why are you smiling?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not getting bombed and I’m not getting shot. It’s a good day.’ "
Like the Captain’s hat says, "It’s just a fishing boat."
And it is. But sometimes, it’s the simple things—laughter, brotherhood, even fishing that keeps a man’s head straight and the thunder rolling.