An angler gives back to vets with Everglades retreats
Capt. Neal Stark’s Soldier’s Retreat looks like a boat outing in the Everglades. What it accomplishes, according to many of the military veterans he has hosted, goes way beyond catching (and releasing) fish.
“What he did for me, that experience, I’ll take with me for the rest of my life,” says Spc. José Díaz of Deltona, who served in Iraq and, like many vets, struggled with re-entry to civilian life. “Now all I can think about is fishing.”
For the past several years, the Coast Guard-approved captain has been taking vets of all ages on retreats through a program he calls Fishing With America’s Finest. With the help of several sponsors, he provides rods and reels, sandwiches and drinks, even sunscreen and polarized sunglasses, at no cost to the military men and women.
It started when he volunteered to take a soldier who was home on leave fishing with his father, and he watched the two reconnect. Over time, he has witnessed other benefits.
“There have been soldiers who were talking to psychiatrists on couches. I get them out there on the water with the blue herons and the spoonbills and the water flowers, and I see a change take place,” he says. “The heaviness begins to lift, and they start laughing and kidding around.”
A lifelong fisherman, Stark competes on the semi-pro circuit with his 11-year-old son, Jake, who sometimes comes along on trips. His wife, Rhonda, has been known to prepare a home-cooked meal for their guests. For his day job, Stark works as a hairstylist at L’estetica Salon International in Aventura, and he also runs a side business as a fishing guide (www.americanevergladesguide.com).
He has connected with many soldiers through word of mouth, and in the past year through the Wounded Warrior Project and the Department of Veteran Affairs. Tabitha Aragon, a recreation therapist at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami, has sent about a dozen vets to fish with Stark. “All I’ve gotten is rave reviews. One vet said that he could sense how caring and genuine he was, very giving of his heart,” she says.
When Stark took Petty Officer 2nd Class Moises Castro of Coral Springs fishing, he brought along an umbrella to shade his service dog. “Neal is very down to earth and in tune with veterans who have a disability,” says Castro, who suffered a brain tumor and post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Kuwait. “He makes sure everyone is having a good time.”
Sgt. Ron Hill of Greenacres, who suffered ankle and neck injuries in Iraq, is an avid fisherman, but Stark wouldn’t even let him bait his hook. “Neal’s not doing this for self-glory,” he says. “He is honored that he can take vets out.”
Stark is working to grow Fishing With America’s Finest
(www.fishingwithamericasfinest.org) so he can serve more vets, and he is developing a military fishing tournament.
“My family life gets crazy sometimes, but they are very supportive,” he says. “I’m on a mission.”