‘Reel American Heroes’ compete on the Potomac

Veterans Nelson Zapata and Jason Gorton participate in this year's “Reel American Heroes Fishing Tournament” in Stafford, Virginia. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
It’s the fifth year for the “Reel American Heroes Fishing Tournament” on the Potomac at Hope Springs Marina in Stafford. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
The main focus of this tournament isn't about winning. Rather, it's about helping wounded veterans. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
Pro bass angler Paul Elias is participating in the tournament for his second year. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)
Ron DeFreitas (center) is the founder of the Reel American Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit run by volunteers. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)

WASHINGTON — Pro and semipro bass fishermen from across the country were in Stafford, Virginia on Saturday for a tournament where the main focus wasn’t on winning.  Instead, this tournament is about helping wounded veterans.

“This has been life changing,” says Nelson Zapata, a wounded veteran who says he’s dealing with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Before this, I pretty much stayed at home.”

It’s the fifth year for the “Reel American Heroes Fishing Tournament” on the Potomac at Hope Springs Marina in Stafford. On Saturday, 82 wounded veterans were paired with a pro or semipro angler for a day of healing on the water.

The bass tournament is about more than catching fish, especially for people like Zapata, who participated in the tournament for the first time last year. This year, his service dog joined him.

Paul Elias, an elite pro bass angler, brought his boat in from Mississippi. It’s his second year doing the tournament. “Just to see the guys smiling and having fun, that’s a big deal.  To see them have fun that’s what it’s all about,” Elias says.

The anglers are all volunteers.

The Reel American Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit, was created in order to “provide recreational therapy for our warriors,” says founder Ron DeFreitas. The foundation is run by volunteers.

Nelson Martinez, president of Virginia operations with the foundation, says magic seemed to take place out there on the water.  It’s not all about competition, it’s about connecting and friendship.

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