By Angelo Peluso
As we all go about our busy lives, we sometimes forget to say thank you to those who protect our freedoms and our coveted way of life. Those liberties were bestowed upon us by visionary forefathers, etched in our Constitution, fought for in wars, and above all else, preserved and protected for generations by all those who serve.
Regardless of one’s political beliefs or political party affiliations, we as a nation are united by those freedoms we all enjoy. We are forever indebted to the many who have served and to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so others can enjoy unparalleled liberty.
Paying tribute to members of the American military for their honorable and selfless service to our country takes many forms. Members of the outdoor community were among the first to embrace that patriotic practice. The Soldiers on the Sound fluke tournament, organized by the Smithtown Bay Yacht Club, is supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 395 from St. James. The 2015 event marked the seventh annual gathering of soldiers and volunteers.
The tournament drew a total of 300 participants, including 135 active members of the military, 60 boat captains, 60 mates and 45 event volunteers — all working to make this the best day possible for the guest soldiers.
Those military members in attendance represented the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the renowned 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard, which is based in Westhampton. Many of the soldiers had recently returned from various deployments abroad.
It was my honor to once again participate in the event and serve as mate aboard captain Adrian Mason’s boat, Big Trouble. Two distinguished members of the 106th Rescue Wing joined with us for the day’s fishing activities — Master Sgt. Shawn Burke and Chief Master Sgt. John Bellissimo. These two seasoned military veterans are also seasoned anglers who are quite adept at catching fluke and big sea robins. One of the team’s keeper flukes was a contender for the day’s weigh-in. In the end, that fish was bested by the winning flatfish in excess of six pounds. The winning fish was caught by 16-year-old first mate Jake DeLeo with the assistance of Staff Sgt. Chris Arrigo from the 106th Rescue Wing, Air National Guard and his captain Tony Voelker. It was both DeLeo and Arrigo’s first year participating in the event.
Captain Adrian Mason of Time Flies Fishing Charters was at the helm of our boat. Like the other gracious captains, he donated his boat, time and skills to host our team of soldiers. Captain Adrian did not disappoint as a number of quality summer flounder were caught, including half a dozen large keeper fluke. The catching is usually secondary to the camaraderie, the laughter and the opportunity to say thank you to a group of patriotic Americans.
“I have been involved with the Soldiers on the Sound for five years, and I can’t thank these service men and women enough for all they do,” he said. “Spending a day on the water with them seems like such a small way to say thank you, but it really means a lot to them. They are heroes in my book and this tournament treats them as such. I am honored to be a part of it every single year and I am already planning for next year.”
The concept for the Soldiers on the Sound fluke tournament was the brainchild of Kings Park resident Mark Garry.
Garry felt a compelling and overwhelming need to honor members of our armed forces who are currently serving our country. His dedication to both cause and mission was intense, and he, along with his team of volunteers, took his vision and turned it into reality — organizing and running one of the most successful events of its kind.
“This event is a small token of appreciation for all that the U.S. military does so that we can all enjoy our freedoms and life in the greatest country on earth,” Garry said to the soldiers who took part in the event. “We can never repay you enough for all that you do for us and for your courage and skills.”
While the initial event seven years ago was a tremendous success, the 2015 tournament set the bar even higher. All soldiers and participants were treated to a pre-tournament breakfast, a BBQ upon their return from fishing, live music and a hot food buffet as the extensive raffle was conducted. The raffle prizes, donated by individuals, local businesses and corporate sponsors, included fishing rod and reel outfits, gift bags, gift certificates and handcrafted products. The top prizes were kayaks, flat screen TVs and computer tablets.
Beyond the fishing, the food, the prizes and the camaraderie of the event, one soldier’s comment hit home.
During one of the idle moments in an otherwise very active day, Chief Master Sergeant John Bellissimo spoke about the importance of the event.
“You cannot imagine how much an event like this means to the entire base,” he said. “Even those soldiers who did not attend will be talking about this for weeks. What matters most of all this is that we know people here on Long Island care about what we do. We are already looking forward to next year.”