2nd annual tournament unites vets on Lake ‘O’

“It started off last year as an idea to try to build some camaraderie between vets and fisherman. Growing up in South Florida in Clewiston, I knew the town was a pretty patriotic town and I figured they would want to get involved in it,” said Tom Loftis, former Clewiston resident and retired Marine.

Last year, Loftis organized the first-ever Operation Bass Warrior fishing tournament in Clewiston. The event welcomed 20 Wounded Warriors — alumni of the Wounded Warrior Project — from across Florida to fish on Lake Okeechobee with local anglers and guides. This year’s event, to be held Oct. 9 and 10, is organized in partnership with not only the Wounded Warrior Project but also the Florida-specific Operation Outdoor Freedom (OOF).

OOF was founded by the Florida Forest Service as a way for wounded veterans to experience Florida for its outdoor recreational opportunities. Those opportunities, like the Bass Warrior tournament, are a means for veterans to seek therapy and simply escape while enjoying the state’s natural beauty.

“The tournament gives them [warriors] a chance to get out. Some who are disabled might not work, so it gives them a chance to get out and experience something outside of their four walls at home. And it allows them to experience something they might not have before, like being out on Lake Okeechobee.
Fishing to me is a medicine in so many ways. It helps you forget everything else that’s going on around you. You’re concentrating on fishing. You’re not worried about what medical care you need or whatever else. It’s just about you and being one with nature,” said Loftis.

Loftis served as a Marine from 1986 to 2008. He completed two tours in Iraq and was deployed all over the world in his 22 years of service. The Operation Bass Warrior tournament is Loftis’ way of giving back to his fellow vets.

“As a veteran you shouldn’t just stop when you’re done with the military. There’s a lot of things you can do for your brothers and sisters. This tournament isn’t much, but for me and the town I think it’s really impactful,” he said.

The tournament begins at safelight on Saturday, Oct. 10. Warriors will take off from Roland and Mary Ann Martin Marina after enjoying a hearty breakfast, saying the pledge and getting specifics from their captains. Weigh-in will be held at the marina at 3 p.m. that day. Donated prizes will be given to the top performers.

Though Saturday is the day to fish, the event begins one day earlier with airboat rides for the warriors and a pre-tournament banquet at the John Boy Auditorium at 6 p.m.

Steaks have been donated by the Hilliard Bros. but event coordinators are still looking for volunteers to prepare side dishes and possibly lend BBQ grills. If you are interested in helping out, email vbloftis@gmail.com.

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