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Creating connections

Combat military retreat during Grouper Grapple helps veterans and active duty reconnect with civilians and other servicemembers.

August 16, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Former staff sergeant Darius Brown knows how to take a weekend-long litany of jokes.

As the only Air Force veteran in a sea of Marines on Fort Myers Beach last week, he had to have a thick skin when it came to some good-natured teasing.

But other than the jokes, Brown was happy to be surrounded by 15 other combat military members during the 5th Annual Grouper Grapple.

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Former Marine Geoffrey Zamjahn had a close encounter with a hammerhead shark while stationed in Hawaii. It was his third year at the Grouper Grapple.

"I have a lot of civilian friends, but the things we've been through, we can talk about it," he said of his fellow servicemembers. "They can relate."

It's the fourth year that the Grouper Grapple fishing tournament at Fish-Tale Marina has coordinated with Freedom Alliance, a national organization that helps provide support for active duty and combat military veterans. Fish-Tale sponsors the Alliance to bring a group of military members to Fort Myers Beach for a retreat, with all airfare and hotel expenses paid for by the funds raised from the fishing tournament's entry fees. The military members get to spend the week in the company of their peers, a therapeutic experience for many.

"Freedom Alliance helps us get out of our own ruts. We tend to keep to ourselves," said Dustin Ostberg, a gunnery sergeant Marine in special operations command. "Veterans are quick to go internal and this helps us reconnect."

Many of the servicemembers have attended the Grouper Grapple year after year and have made friendships through the experience. Brown had to skip last year's retreat as he was transitioning into retirement from the military, and he said he was happy to be back. This year, he also brought along a friend, Raz Belleci, a staff sergeant in the Marines. It was Belleci's first time attending a vacation-like retreat for veterans and put on by veterans.

"This is over the top. I feel very grateful," he said. "I met these guys a few hours ago and it's already like family. It's a seamless camaraderie."

A large part of the Freedom Alliance retreat is put on in partnership with local businesses, including Fish-Tale, the Wyndam Garden Hotel and Tunaskin.

Tunaskin owner Mitch Fusek has a hand in forming the connection between Brian Peachey, the Grouper Grapple founder and Marine vet, and Pepper Ailor, Freedom Alliance's program director. Fusek also provides bagfuls of custom Tunaskin swag to the servicemembers, personalized with their names and military branches.

"When you see what Freedom Alliance does, they're not flashy," Fusek said. "But what they do for these guys really resonates. For us, it's just a fishing tournament but for them, it really affects their lives."

The support of civilians on Fort Myers Beach promotes an important message to the service members.

"The outpouring of support from the community is a good message for the guys that their sacrifice is appreciated," Ailor said. "The goal here is to let them know that after 16 years of war, the public stands with them."

Besides making sure the attendees don't have to pay for airfare or their stay, Fish-Tale's captains and other local charter captains donated their morning Friday to take the 16 military men out in the Back Bay for a day of fishing.

"The local crowd is very accepting to us coming back every year," Ostberg said. "They're very supportive."

The Grouper Grapple tournament was held on Saturday in the Gulf and was open to the public to enter. The entry fees help pay for the veterans' retreat. Fifteen Marines and Brown, the one Air Force veteran, attended this year; 10 of the men were returning alumni and six were newcomers, said Ailor.

"It means the world to come down here," Brown said. "It's nice to be back."



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