By John Geiger, Safari Times Managing Editor
Originally published in the August 2023 edition of Safari Times.
Doan Thuc Tran, who was born in Vietnam and has lived in the U.S. for most of her life, hugged Tommy Clack tightly. Clack, a retired U.S. Army captain, lost his legs and right arm more than 50 years ago in combat during the Southeast Asia conflict.
“I was moved to hug him, hold him, because he has such a positive attitude about life, and he is an inspiration,” said Doan, who lives in nearby Gwinnet County, Georgia, and who speaks with a Vietnamese accent. “When Tommy was just a boy, he went to a country he did not even know existed, and he fought for me, for my freedom, and today he said, ‘I’d do it all again.’ That’s amazing.”
SCI Life member Capt. Clack, along with 30 other Purple Heart veterans, were the honorees at the Georgia Chapter’s 13th annual Wounded Veterans Fishing Weekend at Lake Lanier July 7-9.
The three-day event, which has become a marquis event for Georgia SCI, is an opportunity for veterans, family members and guests to enjoy an all-expenses-paid weekend of meals, accommodations and striped bass fishing.
But this one took on particular international and historical significance.
The chapter brought together U.S. veterans as well as five men who fought for the South Vietnam Army. Both countries fought against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Vietnamese national and U.S. resident Dr. Tong Huynh pointed to one of the most famous photographs from the conflict: a U.S. helicopter on the roof of a Saigon building, picking up people as Saigon fell to the Communist troops.
“That was me,” he said, pointing to a person on the ladder.
Huynh said he had worked with the Americans, and if he had missed that last chopper, he would have been killed. Huynh spoke at length with several U.S. veterans of the same war.
“The cause of freedom, the reason why American veterans served and fought, we did, too. For freedom,” said Huynh. “Those who go through war together have much in common. Now, let’s be friends forever.”
The U.S. and Vietnamese veterans spoke of their families and current lives. Some also spoke of their combat experiences, even though they didn’t know each other back then.
“But they know each other now,” said Dick Caillouet, Chapter vice president and chairman of the Chapter’s wounded veterans events.
Caillouet said the chapter supports our men and women in uniform and this is a way to show our appreciation.
“We want to show these veterans and their families that we care for them,” said Caillouet, a Vietnam veteran himself. “One consistent message I receive from them is that we are indeed helping and changing people’s lives. It’s incredibly powerful.”
Veterans and their guests were welcomed to a Friday-evening kick-off dinner where restaurant customers and staff gave them a standing ovation. American flags were placed on tables and custom placemats at each dinner setting with signatures from staff and patrons along with a special note to each veteran, thanking them for their service and sacrifice.
On Saturday, the veterans set out for an 11-boat fishing tournament on Lake Lanier. Friendly competition waged, and the anglers were vying for several awards to be presented later in the evening. The action included steadily reeling in striped bass, spotted bass and catfish over the next several hours.
Later, more than 100 guests boarded the “Amistad,” a 100-foot vessel owned by Tommy and Chantal Bagwell. Cruise-goers said the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the invocation before casting off the dock to start the three-hour dinner cruise. Participants enjoyed the beautiful weather along with a stellar sunset and the camaraderie continued throughout the night.
Awards provided by Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s were presented to several of the anglers from the day’s fishing tournament. The common theme throughout the night was a message of sincere thanks and gratitude to the veterans for their service to our country.
This event was made possible by numerous volunteers and support from Georgia SCI, Ron Mullins of The Striper Experience and other Lake Lanier Fishing Guides, The Tommy Bagwell Family, Coppersmith Global Logistics, Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s and Holiday Inn Express of Cumming, Ga.
Throughout the years, the Georgia Chapter of SCI has helped more than 1,000 active-duty military and veterans through its humanitarian efforts and events geared towards getting service members outdoors.
Trevor Santos, SCI Director-At-Large and Georgia Chapter President, contributed to this report.