Giving Thanks In Iraq

Zigzagging through the skies of Iraq in a Blackhawk helicopter. Holding a fishing tournament in a lake behind one of Saddam Hussein’s opulent palaces. Unexpectedly finding yourself with a front-row seat to an enemy rocket attack.
No, it wasn’t your typical Thanksgiving holiday for Texas boat dealer Rick Cayton or fishing legend Ray Scott. But it’s everyday life for the more than 100,000 United States military personnel deployed in Iraq.
And that was the point of the 11-day trip the duo took last Thanksgiving to the war-torn country, visiting 17 U.S. bases to spread some holiday cheer from the boating industry to the men and women of the armed services, and thank them for the sacrifices they are making.
“What we wanted to do, because boating is fun and fishing is fun, was to take some fun to the troops,” said Cayton, who owns Texas Boat World, and was a tanker in the First Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm.
Cayton helped organize the trip after a conversation he had with Scott – founder of B.A.S.S., the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society – that took place at about the same time as a unit from Fort Hood, near Cayton’s dealership, was preparing to deploy to Iraq, “Ray said, ‘I sure would like to go see those boys when we can,’” Cayton says. “And I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ So I started working with my military contacts.”
He also started working his boating industry contacts, and donations were soon rolling in. Cayton said companies like Triton and Evinrude donated thousands of dollars worth of merchandise for the trip, which was officially known as the “Ray Scott Iraq Thanksgiving Tour 2004.”
“Virtually everyone we asked to send something over there sent it,” Scott said. “They had to give us two Blackhawk helicopters, one to put the crew in, one to put the goodies in.”
The hats, shirts and other gifts were eventually distributed to the more than 3,000 troops the tour ended up visiting.
“As a dealer, I’m really moved by the support we got from the people I do business with,” Cayton said. “Al Fink at Stingray, Roch Lambert and Jeff Brunson at BRP, Earl Bentz at Triton, I just can’t speak highly enough of them and their support for the deployed soldiers and airmen and seamen.”
At each camp they visited, Scott and Cayton would typically put on a show or hold a contest to entertain the troops. Cayton said one of the highlights of the trip was a fishing contest held in a pond next to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Using rods, reels and lures brought along by the tour members, American troops worked with their foreign counterparts to try to catch the biggest fish.
“A major from Fort Hood, Texas, won [the tournament] with a six-pound, eight-ounce mystery fish,” Cayton said. “We had no clue what this beast was. But it was a lot of fun.”
Cayton said many of the troops he spoke with were very interested in learning about the latest boat and engine innovations.
“There were discussions about what technologies had come out since they had been gone. They were very hungry for that information and we had a wonderful time.”
But if the troops were able to learn a little from those on the tour, Cayton and Scott said they learned much more from their time with the troops. Both came away very impressed with the selflessness displayed by the armed forces personnel they met.
Each told the story of an autograph session at which Scott was approached by a young soldier who asked to have a shirt signed for his buddy, who lost his feet when a patrol vehicle the two were riding in hit a mine.
Scott signed, only to be approached a few minutes later by another soldier, who had also been in the vehicle, and not knowing about the first autograph request, also asked Scott to sign something for his wounded friend.
“To see the emotion, the sincere emotion, that they feel for each other is very touching,” Cayton said.
Adds Scott, “This trip probably had the most profound effect on me of anything I’ve ever done.”

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