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Veterans enjoy day at sea (w/video, gallery)

By Elena Watts
May 17, 2014 at 12:17 a.m.

Bradly Hanawalt, of Iowa, gets a hug from Warrior's Weekend volunteer Chad Gaskey, of Bastrop, as their fishing boat heads in to the docks during Saturday's Warrior's Weekend fishing trip in Port O'Connor. "It lifted a lot of weight on my heart," Hanawalt said of his first experience at Warrior's Weekend. "There are people out here that do care about us - they don't even know us, but they still care about us."

PORT O'CONNOR - Three medically-retired Army soldiers' antics outshined the day's fishing conditions at Warrior's Weekend on Saturday.

"I caught your boat," said Sean Cogburn, 31, of Michigan, as the boat owner's son hoisted the anchor rope tangled with Cogburn's hook and line. "Do I get to keep it?"

Cogburn pressed boat Capt. John Wetjen, of LaGrange, about the catch-and-release policy for boats.

Wetjen's son, also named John Wetjen, and his friend, Chad Gaskey, helped anchor the boat, advised the fishermen on their casting and reeling techniques and helped bait the fishing hooks.

The 20 mile-per-hour winds that rocked the vessel At Ease, a Ranger 250C fishing boat, were no match for the good time the reunited friends were enjoying. Their camaraderie was evident as they cast their lines all afternoon. Bradly Hanawalt, 27, of Iowa, called all of his Army comrades his best friends.

"If you lined them up behind a shower curtain with only their feet showing, I could tell you everything about them," Hanawalt said. "Who they are, their blood types, how many kids they have."

Cogburn said the weekend offers veterans a reprieve from the difficulties that often plague their lives after they retire from the military.

"We get to see our brothers and hang out and fish in Texas," Cogburn said. "Our states are not like that."

More than 800 soldiers filled 400 boats captained by volunteers to fish for several hours, said Kelly Parks, vice president and secretary/boat committee chairman for the event. Almost 500 volunteers donated their time and energy to make the weekend a reality.

"The event gets bigger every year," Parks said. "We can't say no to our heroes."

Cogburn, Hanawalt and Cody Pulkkinen, 26, of Maine, fought together in the No Slack battalion during Operation Strong Eagle III in Afghanistan.

The battle has sparked comparisons of the soldiers' battalion to the battalion featured in the HBO series "Band of Brothers," Cogburn said.

The upcoming documentary "The Hornet's Nest" centers largely around the fierce firefight in Afghanistan. Embedded journalists Mike Boettcher and his son, Carlos Boettcher, provide first-hand accounts and video footage of the action for the film.

"I'm scared to see the movie because I was overwhelmed by the trailer," Hanawalt said. "If I see it, I want to go with a group of friends."

Soldiers in the No Slack Army battalion descended a mountain in Barwala Kalay, Afghanistan, late in the night March 29, 2011. They carried their rucksacks, ammunition and weaponry for four hours down treacherous terrain as part of Operation Strong Eagle III. The mission targeted high-value Taliban leadership in the circular valley.

Other soldiers remained atop the mountain to watch for the enemy and provide cover fire.

The exhausted soldiers reached the valley and cleared the first set of mud and straw houses they found. Most of the inhabitants had already fled, so the remaining weapons were all that needed clearing.

While they worked in a particularly large, U-shaped house in the second set of dwellings, rain began to pelt the soldiers. The inclement weather forced the helicopters to leave, and then hell broke loose. A barrage of Taliban bullets from the mountainsides pinned the soldiers down.

"It sounded like rapid hail hitting a tin roof," Cogburn said. "Soldiers who were on their fifth and sixth deployment had never seen anything like it."

The battalion fought their way 20 miles to the opposite side of the valley for five days and ascended the mountain. Six soldiers were killed in action.

"I took the photo of my wife and children out of my helmet to say goodbye," Hanawalt said.

Cogburn and Pulkkinen have post-traumatic stress disorder, and Hanawalt received two Purple Hearts for injuries he received.

"You learn to live with it and heal over time," Pulkkinen said.



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