BROOKINGS — While escorting convoy after convoy over dusty roads between Jordan and Iraq, Sgt. 1st Class and Medford native Matt Holmes let his mind wander toward all things fishing.
Casting spinner baits for largemouth bass. Drift-fishing chunks of roe for winter steelhead in the Coquille River. Fishing plugs for chinook in the Rogue River near Agness.
Holmes' taste for fishing helped him forget the interminable dust cloaking his throat.
"Every day," says Holmes, 38. "I almost had my wife send over a couple bass rods just so I could cast in the dirt."
For that not-so-small sacrifice, a group of anglers are taking this Veterans Day as an opportunity to say thank you to Holmes and a dozen other Oregon National Guard soldiers in the best way they know how.
They will load soldiers into their driftboats Saturday for a day of fall chinook fishing on Southern Oregon's Chetco River, a donation of time and skill that will not go unappreciated.
The chance to bring a few of the best and brightest, 40-plus-pound chinook Oregon rivers have to offer is an exciting adventure for Holmes and his fellow soldiers who returned from their tour in May.
It's a collective community "thank you" to citizen-soldiers who make up the National Guard.
"It means a lot to us," says Holmes, who now runs the Guard's Roseburg office. "It gives these guys who don't fish a lot a chance to have a good time. It's great that they take time out of their schedules."
That's exactly what Stan Easley has hoped for.
The 64-year-old Brookings man is a former Marine Corps captain and Vietnam veteran who recalls recuperating from wounds for months in hospitals, needing his mind to wander toward happier times.
When he learned in the fall of 2008 that the 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry Regiment stationed in Roseburg was about to get shipped off to Iraq, Easley wanted them to bring as many good memories as possible to the desert.
And what better memory than fighting a monster chinook on the Chetco, a big-fish river known locally as Oregon's Kenai after the fabled Alaskan river.
"I know that when it's 120 degrees in the shade, you remember things like floating on the Chetco and fishing," Easley says.
Twenty guardsmen took part in that flotilla two years ago.
Holmes was set to be one of them. A regular angler, he stepped aside at the last moment.
"They ran out of seats, so I let a private go in my place," Holmes says.
Holmes and the others all went to Iraq for more than a year of convoy-security escorts through the desert.
"It was hot, dusty, boring," Holmes says. "It was Iraq."
To escape, he dove into everything about fishing he could find.
Holmes would read, and reread, fishing catalogues. He was a religious reader of the Mail Tribune's weekly Oregon Outdoors articles online, scrolling through the weekly fishing reports and imagining himself on those waters stalking Oregon's signature salmon.
"I was on eBay all the time, too," Holmes says. "I bought eight new rods and reels and had them shipped home."
The Guard shipped Holmes home briefly for the holidays last year. The first thing he did was fish for steelhead on the Coquille with Jim Dunleavy, an old friend and current fishing guide based in Medford.
The regiment has been home for good since May. But they never left the memory of Easley, their pre-deployment benefactor who always planned a welcome-back present for the group.
"It was really enjoyable doing this the first time around, so of course I wanted to do it again," Easley says. "It doesn't matter what you think about the war. It's simply saying thanks."
The trip helps vets like Holmes feel welcomed.
I know some of these guys are guides who could be earning $400 on the river Saturday," Holmes says. "Instead, they're taking us.
"It's good stuff," he says. "It makes us feel good."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.