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Volunteers give veterans a special day on the river

Fishing trips offer veterans camaraderie and sense of belonging

Salvador Trujillo, of Tigard, kisses a salmon he caught on the Columbia River as part of an annual fishing trip for local veterans, organized by Dion Hess.Dion Hess wanted to say thank you in the only way he knew how.

On a bright September morning, Hess, along with about two-dozen friends and 24 local veterans, cast their lines into the Columbia River for a day of fishing, relaxing and honoring those who had given so much to their country.

In the past four years, Hess has organized a yearly fishing trip for local veterans, getting them out on the water for a day of fun, fishing and friendship.

“I love to fish,” said Hess, who manages the Walmart on Southwest Dartmouth Street. “It’s something I like to do. If you can do what you love to do and give back at the same time, why not?”

The event began four years ago when Hess was managing a Walmart store in Vancouver, Wash.

“I was talking to a fishing guide, and he mentioned that if people wanted to buy two seats on his fishing boat for the day, he would donate two other seats to a charity,” Hess said. “I called a friend of mine and said that we ought to buy the two seats and take some soldiers fishing.”

The two seats set them back about $200 each, and they asked around at a nearby recruiting office for veterans to take fishing.

The trip quickly grew.

“Our guide said that he knew a couple other guides who might be interested in doing the same thing, so we called a couple other store managers we knew to see if anyone else was interested in buying seats.”

That first year, they rented 14 guide boats, taking about 28 Army and Navy veterans out for a day of fishing.

The second year, Hess went again, this time taking more than 60 veterans. The third year, the group took about 100.

The age of the veterans varies greatly. Some have recently returned from active duty, others have been out of the service for many years.

“We have a couple of people who left for boot camp a week after the fishing trip,” Hess said.Dion Hess works with fishing guides and local organizations such as Wounded Warriors and the VFW to find veterans to accompany them on their yearly fishing trips on the Columbia.

'Part of our community'

Dugan Harris, the Tigard Walmart’s food manager and Hess' co-worker, has been involved in the trips since the beginning. He said something as simple as a fishing trip can have a big impact on people's lives.

“We want to let them know that they are accepted. They are part of our community, and we appreciate what they do,” Harris said. “And then, we go have a good time fishing.”

Salvador Trujillo of Tigard has participated in two of Hess’ fishing trips and said he plans to go again next year.

"After the trip, people feel great," he said. "You feel like starting conversations and saying hi to people again. It’s a moral boost.”

Trujillo served in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Iraq before being injured in 2007.

His face and hands were burned, and Trujillo said it was difficult for him to re-adjust to society after returning home.

“It took me a while to come out in public places,” he said. “Kids don’t know how to ask me about it, so they ask things that are just hurtful. It took me a while to figure out that it was alright, and that they were just kids.”

Trujillo said it was getting outdoors through fishing and snowboarding that got him to feel normal again.

“Fishing is like a blank canvas,” he said. “You go into your own little world of happiness.”

Harris, a veteran himself, said many veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences and can become introverted, but fishing has a way of getting people to relax.

“People start to open up,” Harris said. “When we start fishing, it’s usually very quiet. But by the end of the trip, we are like long-lost friends, they really come out of their shells. It gives them the opportunity to have something in common, and the conversations evolve at their own pace.”

Trujillo agreed.

“It’s fun, and you’re with your comrades, so everything that comes out of your mouth is known by everybody there,” Trujillo said. “It’s not like when you are in a coffee shop or other places, where you feel like you stand out."

Hess and the other organizers plan one major fishing trip each year, along with a handful of smaller fishing trips with individuals.

“It has morphed into a few different things over the years,” he said. “There was a man I’d met who had never caught a salmon on the Columbia River and really wanted to. But he’s 92, and we thought that it was probably too long of a day of fishing during the big event, so we customized a trip just for him. It is really just something I like to do.”

This year’s trip — which was held in late September — spread from the mouth of the Klickitat River to the Lewis River and to Bonneville Dam.

Trujillo fishes regularly and said experiences like Hess’ trips make transitioning back into civilian life easier.

“For them, it’s not about Veterans Day or Memorial Day, they just want to get veterans out there, and I thank people like that,” Trujillo said. “They keep us in mind throughout the whole year."

On Hess’ cellphone, he keeps a text that Trujillo sent him after the fishing trip.

“I really had a blast today,” the text reads. “You are my hero, buddy.”

“What do you say to that?” Hess said. “He’s the true hero. He came pretty close to giving the ultimate sacrifice. Somebody like him is a true hero.

“I’ll probably save it forever. It means a lot to me.”

Trujillo said Hess' trips are something he has come to look forward to every year.

"Dion is Dion, man," Trujillo said. "He’s a quiet guy, but he likes to see people laugh and seeing that his work actually works. What he puts together really helps. People are high-fiving and smiling. It’s guys like him who keep guys like me from going nuts.”

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