PORT O’CONNOR — Four bus loads of Fort Hood Soldiers made the trek to this gulf town for the 13th annual Warrior’s Weekend, sponsored by a non-profit organization dedicated to helping America’s veterans and Soldiers who shows their appreciation by volunteering to gather Soldiers past and present and taking them fishing.

“This year, we brought 200 Soldiers down here,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Byron Larsen, senior enlisted advisor for U.S. Army Garrison - Fort Hood. “We’re going to do the same thing next year, and next year, I promise to bring 300 Soldiers from Fort Hood, the Great Place.”

Getting to the gulf on Friday, was an experience in itself.

“There were lots of people cheering on the side of the road,” Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeremy Cruz, 166th Aviation Brigade, said. “It felt very much like a parade. Throughout the route, there were thousands of people.”

The troops made two stops en route to Port O’Connor: lunch at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cuero and a Field of Honor stop in Victoria, adorned with hundreds of American flags to honor the troops.

Ron Kocian, president of Warrior’s Weekend, was inspired to put together this fishing trip after seeing other bases do similar gatherings on a smaller scale and seeing how this changed the Soldiers.

“I remember when I was back on duty at basic training in Fort Polk and a lot of the guys in my last formation, most of them were going to Vietnam,” he recalled. “I was in the National Guard, so I went home, but I never forgot that. And I know how those guys were treated and I wanted to do our part to see that these guys are not treated like that.”

At first glance, Warrior’s Weekend may seem to be just another fishing trip, but these past 13 years has proved it is more than just that for the Soldiers, veterans and the volunteers. It is a chance. A chance for them to share their past, heal old wounds and see the world in a new light.

“I’ve been out 25 years of the military,” said Eric Scarlett, a military veteran. “I didn’t really let people know for many years that so to come to an event like this, it actually gives me an opportunity to be myself.”

Scarlett added that being able to meet other veterans and talk to each other about their experiences, something he said many of their loved ones wouldn’t understand.

After their arrival Friday night, some dinner and getting bedded down for the night, the next day dawned and it was time to do some fishing.

“They (veterans) were kind of skittish when they got here, they didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Ray Vigus, board member for Warrior’s Weekend. “But it’s almost like a healing process started that day for them. The way they came back, the joy they had of just going out for a few hours to go fishing was just unbelievable.”

At first, there weren’t enough boats to bear the hundreds of fishermen.

“They put a call out (for more boats to assist) on Facebook,” Cruz, who went out in one of the first boats, said, “… and within minutes, people responded immediately.”

Out in the gulf, some caught big fish. Some caught little fish. Regardless of their catch, they made new friends, and not just with fellow Soldiers but with the fishermen, locals and volunteers.

“I caught 15-inch ‘Red.’ At least that’s what they were calling it,” Cruz, an aviator with nearly 24 years of active service, said, noting it was too small to keep. “I also caught a ‘Hardhead.’ It looked like a Catfish, put it was puny. And I mean puny … seven inches. I took a photo of it for Facebook as a joke.”

But on a serious note, Cruz said the weekend fishing trip was a great experience for the Soldiers who came from Fort Hood.

“It’s one thing for people to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It’s another thing to put forth the effort to show that respect and pride (for service members),” Cruz said. “It’s important for Soldiers to see that.”

Vigus said Warrior’s Weekend strives to do much more than a simple thank you.

“Never quit. You’re not alone,” he said. “It’s not about the fishing. It’s about putting about 600 to 700 of these men and women who have sacrificed so much for us together to realize that they’re not the only one missing a leg. They’re not the only one suffering from PTSD, or TBI, or anything. They’re not alone, and they’ll tell you it’s not about the fishing. It’s about coming home and being with their brothers and sisters.”

Editor’s note: Dave Larsen, Command Information Officer, contributed to this article.