RBC I In 2005, Freedom Alliance founder Lt. Col. Oliver North stated during a TV segment of Hannity & Colmes that Ramadi, Iraq, was “one of the most violent places on the planet.” Ramadi is the capital of al-Anbar province and, in 2005, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor was fighting the growing insurgency.
On Dec. 5, 2005, three days prior to the airing of that particular show, 2/69 Scout Platoon Army Medic Jason Gross and his fellow soldiers were injured in an IED blast that detonated under his vehicle while on route back to their camp. Jason injured his neck and back and the platoon sergeant, Larry Campbell, suffered burns to his back and arms.
Almost 10 years later, a few of these war fighters were invited by Freedom Alliance to enjoy a fishing experience in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area of the White River National Forest in Colorado thanks to a generous gift from the Hengeler family of Maryland.
The event was built around Jason Gross of Warsaw, Va., who (in spite of constant back pain) has found inspiration in using his GI Bill to attain a degree in nursing, a field that compliments the job he conducted while serving in the Army.
Jason invited fellow soldier Dan Robbins, the old platoon leader Maj. Brandon Lindsey, First Sgt. Larry Campbell, and his cousin, Jeremy Horne, who recently retired after 24 years in the South Carolina National Guard.
The soldiers from 2/69 Scout Platoon had not seen each other since 2006, when the unit redeployed back to the states. After getting out of the Army, Dan went home to central Washington and started a taxi service. Brandon stayed in the Army, serving another tour in Iraq and currently serves in an active duty position with the Virginia National Guard. Larry spent eight months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio following the blast, and stayed in the Army until retiring to Tampa, Fla., where he works for USAA.
Freedom Alliance was represented by Pepper Ailor and veteran Ryan Behm, who resides in Colorado. The group also extended an invitation to Freedom Alliance Scholarship recipient Anthony Cutino. Anthony’s father lost his life in a night-time training accident on Fort Bragg in 1999. Anthony is almost finished with a degree in psychology and expressed interest in finding a career to help veterans.
Flying into Denver on July 14, the group headed west in two cars to spend the night in Glenwood Springs, adjusting to the increase in elevation. The next morning, the group headed north to the town of Meeker and then onto a scenic byway to a campground marked Marvine Campground. There we linked up with Bruce Clatterbaugh and his crew from Adams Lodge Outfitters (ALO). This is the second year Clatterbaugh has donated his guided service and camp (a $3,600 gift). ALO staff Greg and Dustin helped Clatterbaugh weigh our gear and divide it among the pack horses, then helped get saddled up onto the next form of transportation: a three-hour horse ride into the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
Around mid-day, the group reached its destination: Upper Marvine Lake. The ride was more than scenic, more than beautiful—it was breath-taking—or maybe that was the 9,300 feet elevation! The camp was situated above the lake within the tree line and consisted of two canvas tents with cots for sleeping and one canvas tent for cooking. The “kitchen” tent had a wood stove and propane burners and an oven for convenience. ALO stocks cooking gear, utensils, plates, cups and the all-important coffee percolator. We stored our groceries as the ALO team headed back home, and then the men grabbed their fishing rods.
Over the next few days, the veterans would trek from the camp down to the lake about three times a day to fish. The clear waters were almost boiling with activity as the trout species fed on the insects floating on the water’s surface.
They returned from fishing only when hungry, and Jason, the designated camp cook, provided meals fit for a restaurant let alone a campsite, including steak, chicken, hamburgers, and fresh-caught trout! The men even rigged a spit to smoke several of the trout … tasty!
The pristine water of the Upper Marvine Lake was surrounded on both sides by steep-rising cliffs that reach 11,000 feet. Pine and aspen dotted the area and wildflowers added beautiful reds, yellows, and purple to the lush green grass. The weather reached into the upper 70s during the day, and dropped by 25 degrees at night. An occasional storm passed through each day, dumping rain and filling the canyon with reverberations of thunder.
One of the highlights of the trip occurred around the fire pit. Whether it was early morning with a cup of joe, or below the starry night sky, the veterans recalled deployment stories … good, bad, and ugly. From grisly stories of suicide bombers to funny stories of pranks, the men opened up to each other recalling memories from their time in Ramadi.
These somber moments were broken up by a pesky family of chipmunks that would haunt the campsite with their antics of stealing food, licking the grill and hovering under our chairs. We all had a good laugh at these cute forest rodents, but all the guys really got jazzed when a mule deer crossed the camp to graze along the side of the mountain where the setting sun made his velvet antlers glow.
On the fourth day, Clatterbaugh, Greg and Dustin returned to camp with horses as a slight rain began to drizzle. However, the sun overpowered the dark clouds within an hour and we were dry by the end of the horse ride. On the horse ride out of Marvine Lakes, Larry was asked to share his favorite part of the trip. He said, “It’ll take me a few days to figure out my favorite, but from the moment I saw Jason and Dan waving at me in Denver’s airport, I knew it was going to be a great trip.”
Going downhill was much faster, and the ride was over before we knew it. Saddened to leave, but grateful for the experience, the group left the campground to make the five-hour drive back to Denver for our flights the next morning.
After the event, Jason wrote: “This event was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for myself and the guys I invited. We had not all been together since Dec. 5, 2005, when an IED explosion injured 1st SGT Campbell and I. Without the Freedom Alliance, I doubt that we would have ever been in the same place together at the same time ever again. This trip was an experience that I will never forget because it brought all of us back together and it gave me some closure on a difficult time in my life.
“I will forever be in your debt for arranging this,” Jason wrote “Just to be able to spend time together talking around the campfire would have been enough; but throw in the fishing and the beautiful scenery—it made for something that was truly unique and special.
“I especially enjoyed the horse riding,” he wrote. “It brought another aspect into the trip. We were extremely lucky to have the Hengeler family and Adam’s Lodge Outfitters sponsor the event … The location of the camp and the isolation allowed us to be ourselves and to have a memorable experience. This trip is something I will always cherish. Thank you so much for doing this. We are extremely grateful.”