On the Mississippi, a chance for vets to talk fishing, war

Trolling for Troops
Left, Swede Anderson, 82, of Rochester was a seaman during the Korean War. Right, Anderson's grandson Nathan Foster, 35, of St. Cloud is airfield commander at Camp Ripley. Both fished in the Trolling for Troops event Friday, June 6, 2014.
John Enger / MPR News

Swede Anderson was out on the Mississippi River Friday with a few dozen other military veterans, casting for small mouth bass in the fast-moving water. Anderson, 82, and his 35-year-old grandson Major Nathan Foster, the airfield and training support unit commander at Ripley, were part of an annual event that gives veterans some time on the water with professional fishing guides.

"I have a bad habit," Anderson said, "fishing."

"Better than work, that's for sure," Foster said.

The Minnesota Army National Guard held its fourth annual Trolling for Troops event, bringing veterans to Camp Ripley to fish 18 miles of Mississippi River as it flows through the military base.

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This day on the water was a world away from one Seaman Swede Anderson spent while fighting in Korea.

On an August night in 1952, his ship, the USS Sarsi, was on patrol off the coast of North Korea when it hit a drifting mine. The boat sank in a few minutes. Anderson spent nine hours afloat, sharing a single buoy with five other sailors, wondering if he'd never be found, or worse, if he'd be found by the North Koreans. "There was a ring on one end of the buoy and a ring on the other," he said, "and six of us held on all night, two fingers each."

Eventually they were all picked up by a passing destroyer. More than 60 years later, the boy who spent those cold hours in the Sea of Japan is a grandfather and still loves getting out on the water.

The military has made more than the usual news in recent weeks, with investigations into VA scheduling practices and controversy over the exchange of Taliban detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Aside from a grateful nod to those who fought 70 years ago on the D-Day invasion, the news wasn't a topic of discussion. Everyone was focused on fishing.

Trolling for Troops is a relatively new program at Camp Ripley. More than two decades ago camp brass started a disabled veteran's deer hunting program.

Trolling for Troops
A fishing boat heads out onto the Mississippi River with a guide and two veterans during Friday's Trolling for Troops event at Camp Ripley.
John Enger / MPR News

"When you ask returning soldiers what they missed," said camp spokesman Major John Donovan, "first they say family, then they say hunting and fishing. It's in our DNA here in Minnesota."

He described wheelchair-bound veterans taking bucks with chair-mounted rifles. The deer hunting program is still running, but four years ago commanders at the base started thinking -- hunting is a solitary sport. Talking is discouraged. Fishing, not so much.

Trolling for Troops pairs older and disabled veterans with soldiers returning from active duty and fishing guides by the boatload.

"They get to talking," Donovan said, "and it turns out, different decades, different conflicts, same story. It can be cathartic."

Anderson spent four years in the Navy during the Korean War. His grandson served two year-long tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both have stories to tell, but that's not what they talked about. Mainly they discussed Anderson's fishing prowess -- hauling in a 17.5-inch small mouth bass.

"Fishing," Foster said, "We don't really talk about war. We talk about fishing."