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National Guard-sponsored anglers help tell the story

By Air Force Lt. Col. Les Carroll
South Carolina National Guard

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The National Guard story is a great one to tell and the Guard got some help during the four-day Forrest Wood Cup fishing extravaganza, staged August 14-17 here on South Carolina's bass-fishing jewel Lake Murray.

The National Guard-sponsored team of professional anglers did their part to help Guard recruiters and leaders tell the story and it's no fish story!

Guard team member Melinda Hooper served in Operation Iraqi Freedom during her Guard career.

"I'm so proud to represent the National Guard, she said. As a former Guard member, I know what it's like to serve and I know what the Soldiers (and airmen) go through. I'm honored to be on the National Guard team. I never thought I'd be able to put together my passions for fishing and for serving my country."

Four National Guard Fishing team members qualified for the FLW's crowning event, the Forrest Wood Cup. But the entire team of 14 professionals and co-anglers made the trip and wore the National Guard colors with enthusiasm.

At the daily weigh-in event here in the Colonial Center, team members pumped up the crowd by tossing National Guard fishing hats to them.

All the teams participated in the afternoon weigh-in show, but the appearance of the National Guard team always brought the loudest cheer from the crowd.

At the nearby convention center, Guard-sponsored anglers signed autographs, posed for photographs, talked fishing and service, all the while assisting Guard recruiters and leaders in telling the National Guard story.

With the Guard presence everywhere at the Forrest Wood Cup, it was fitting that the tournament leader brought his fish to the weigh-in each day in the National Guard aœleader bag, the FLW's fishing's version of the Tour de France yellow jersey.

The National Guard also sponsored the World Junior Tournament, which crowned two junior champions.

South Carolina Army and Air National Guard recruiters greeted hundreds of fishing fans, gave out promotional items, and talked up the National Guard for the entire four days.

Guard members showed off military hardware like an M-1 tank and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Each morning and afternoon, Army Guard honor guards presented the colors and the Army Guard also conducted a four-ship flyover with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.

Sgt. Steven David, a recruiter for the South Carolina Air National Guard, performed the National Anthem five times during the four-day event.

It was an awesome experience for me, David said. It was an honor to sing the National Anthem and represent the Guard at such a huge event. It was something I'll never forget, and hope to get the opportunity to do it again. I got a lot of positive feedback and some recruiting leads too.

Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard, called the National Guard and FLW a strong partnership.

We're all about service, he said. What we like about fishing is the discipline, the drug-free environment and service to the nation. Those are the things FLW does so extremely well, and everybody out here represents that, and that's the same thing we ask of our Soldiers.

Adam Lock is a sergeant in the Illinois National Guard and full-time recruiter. Yet somehow he manages time to recruit and fish for Guard as a member of National Guard Fishing.

You want to talk about a sense of pride, Lock said. I take pride in putting on the uniform and serving my country. I also take pride in putting on that National Guard fishing jersey and representing the Guard in that way. The colors might be different, but what they stand for is the same.

Fishing professionally has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. Now, thanks to the National Guard, I get a chance to live out that dream. It's a unique position to be in.

Lock had served in the Guard previously and got out after his first enlistment. He was teaching and coaching in high school when he heard about the National Guard Fishing team. So, he returned to the Guard full time as a recruiter and joined the fishing team shortly thereafter.

Just like wearing the military uniform of the National Guard, wearing the uniform of National Guard Fishing draws attention.

On Day Two, National Guard professional Scott Martin even took the time to chat up the locals while fishing along the private docks on the Lexington bank of Lake Murray.

He stood in his boat with his bright yellow National Guard team shirt glistening against the water. A whole family came to the shoreline, cameras in hand, to check out the action. The sleek National Guard boat caught their eye.

I like your boat, a young lady called out to Martin.

We're pulling for you, said another lady.

I appreciate that, he replied cordially, still casting his line inches from the bank where they stood. Maybe I can land you a big bass to take a picture of.

The fish don't always cooperate, but eventually, the pros find them. The pro that found the biggest mess of fish was 24-year-old Michael Bennett, who took home the million-dollar check after the final weigh-in.

Before Bennett and the other nine finalists arrived at the Colonial Center for the final weigh-in, the crowd of about 8,000 were treated to a free concert by country music star Tracy Byrd.

Event host and legendary boat-builder Forrest Wood and Vaughn brought to the stage two National Guard families, who have family members deployed to Afghanistan. Both families received a standing ovation from the exuberant crowd.

When the top 10 anglers did arrive with the final day's catch, they appeared on the Colonial Center stage like rock stars, passing through shooting flames and dizzying smoke, accompanied by a drum roll from the University of South Carolina drumline.

Even when anglers didn't have a good day, they managed to keep their sense of humor. Jay Yelas struggled on the final day, bringing in just one small bass and relegating himself to the bottom of the top ten.

When his one fish was on the scales, Yelas quipped, I've seen bigger fish than that on a pizza.

National Guard-sponsored angler Brent Ehrler finished seventh among the 77 professional anglers.

There's a lot of history behind the Guard. To represent the National Guard is unbelievable, Ehler said. I get goose bumps every time I think about all the servicemen and women that are out there, just doing everything for our country.