HERNANDO BEACH — As the fishing boat gently pitched and rolled in the Gulf of Mexico, Army Staff Sgt. Michael Benson tugged at his bent rod, struggling to reel in whatever had latched onto his bait.
A spotted mackerel splashed to the surface.
Moments later, Benson clutched the thrashing fish in both hands while the captain snapped a photo.
For a soldier felled four months ago by a bullet to the leg and shrapnel to the brain, Monday's excursion was more than a fishing trip. It was a heartfelt thank you from a group of Spring Hill retirees who footed the bill for Benson and six other injured veterans.
"They're right on the peak of the most frustrating times of their lives,'' said Larry Krizan, president of a fishing club in the Timber Pines retirement community. "Who does it benefit to put a ribbon on your car?''
There are plenty of shiny sedans and sport utility vehicles driving around Timber Pines with yellow ribbons on their bumpers and tailgates. The immaculately groomed golf community is home to lots of veterans, and parents and grandparents of active-duty personnel.
Members of the Timber Pines Anglers, some of them veterans themselves, wanted to do more. They contacted officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, offering a day trip on the Thunder, a 45-foot charter boat docked at Hernando Beach.
Early Monday, a dozen club members sipped coffee and swapped fish tales as they waited for their guests to arrive. The seven veterans were residents of Haley's transitional rehabilitation program, where they work to adjust to the lingering effects of their physical injuries, brain trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
They cook meals in a communal kitchen, go shopping and continue physical therapy.
The message is simple, said Evelyn Mack, one of two recreational therapists who accompanied the veterans on the trip.
"This injury, no matter how devastating, does not define your life," Mack said.
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Capt. Mike Senker's voice crackled over the Thunder's loudspeaker as the boat rumbled to life.
"We appreciate everything you've done for us, and we just want to give you a big thank you," said Senker, who cut his daily rate for the club.
As the boat idled through a canal, Mack leaned over to 25-year-old Army Spc. Tyler Smith.
"This is the best therapy you're going to get, even if you don't catch anything," she said. "I guarantee it."
A member of the 82nd Airborne, Smith was stationed in eastern Afghanistan earlier this year when he lost feeling in his right side and his speech became slurred. By the time the Georgia native returned to the states, he couldn't get out of bed and could barely move his arms.
Doctors found bleeding on his brain and determined he had suffered a stroke. After weeks of intensive therapy, Smith is walking with the help of a black metal cane. The turning point, he said, was going to the bathroom on his own.
Now he stood at the Thunder's railing, reeling in a grunt fish.
"It's really a blessing that we're able to do something like this," he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Freddy Ruiz recalls fishing with his father near his native Dallas, but doesn't remember going to Afghanistan in 2010.
Ruiz, 29, knows he was driving a Humvee when a nearby car exploded. The force broke bones in his arm and leg. Suffering a concussion and a brain injury, he started therapy in Colorado and arrived at Haley in May.
Holding a fishing rod with his good arm felt great, Ruiz said, smiling from behind dark wraparound glasses. He hopes to return to Texas and his favorite fishing spot in San Antonio.
"If it were up to me," he said, "I'd go fishing every day."
Benson, a 26-year-old Pennsylvania native, grew up yanking catfish from the creeks of Lancaster County. He joined the Army because that's what men in the Benson clan do. In June, his unit came under fire in eastern Afghanistan.
His severe brain injury affected his speech and his eyesight. He has been diagnosed with PTSD, the cumulative effect of three Middle East tours. He wears a brace on his leg.
Fighting the mackerel, he said, was an enjoyable test.
"It hurt, but just knowing I could do it made me happy."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.