For Marine Corps Reserve veteran Tony Choe, bass fishing has been a vital part of life since 1994, when a gunshot wound to his back left him paralyzed.
Tony, who moved to the United States from South Korea at age 17, joined the Marine Corps Reserve as a way to “put his roots down” and learn American culture. His service as a Reservist also enabled him to complete college and run his family convenience store business in Northern Virginia.
But after serving in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1989-91, Tony’s life changed and nearly ended. While working at his family convenience store in 1993, a robber shot Tony in the back. His doctor gave him just a 10 percent chance of survival.
“The only thing I could think about in the hospital was driving and going back to work and how I was ever going to be normal again,” Tony says. “It was devastating, and I thought my life had ended right there.”
It was through his rehabilitation, however, that Tony found hope. A friend introduced him to Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Bass Tour event, which includes seven fishing tournaments each year in various states. Having grown up ocean fishing in Korea with his father, Tony signed up for the program in hopes that he’d be a natural fit for the sport.
It was his first tournament on the Potomac River in 1994 that Tony met able-bodied Air Force veteran and volunteer Bob Miller, who not only taught him a lot about bass fishing but also became a lifelong friend.
“My life has revolved around the Paralyzed Veterans bass tour,” Tony says. “I always look forward to the tournaments because that’s the time I get to be with my friends. I’ve been fishing the tour since 1994, so this is my 20th year. Everyone who fishes the tour is like a family member.”
Bass fishing tournaments now serve as a much-needed break from Tony’s full-time job as an IT specialist at the State Department in Washington, D.C. “It’s a chance to get away from work, which can be stressful,” he says. “I’m out there catching fish instead of fighting with computers.”
The first ten years fishing on the tour were difficult, Tony says, in part because he pressured himself too hard to win. In 2005, he resolved to stop pressuring himself and focus on having fun, and that’s when his skills started to improve.
Tony has since been named Angler of the Year twice (2011 and 2012). In 2013, he also was named the club champion of his local bass fishing club, which, besides Tony, is made up entirely of able-bodied anglers.
“People respect me; in fact, they don’t even look at me as if I have a disability,” Tony says. “I’m just a regular club member, which is the way I want it. I want people to not think about my disability but my ability, and I can fish just like anybody else out there.”
It’s that sentiment that keeps Tony fishing. Whether on the Paralyzed Veterans of America Bass Tour or with his local club, he says the greatest reward is inspiring others about what can be accomplished from a wheelchair. Often, at able-bodied bass fishing events, spectators request to take photos of Tony to share with their disabled friends and family members in hopes of proving that a wheelchair does not prevent one from living life to the fullest.
Tony hopes his story and success will inspire other wounded and injured veterans to realize their potential – whether it’s in pursuing adaptive sports, seeking employment or simply achieving their long-held goals. Fishing in particular, he says, has no bias or boundaries.
“Fish do not care whether you’re in a wheelchair, an amputee or brain injured,” Tony says. “It’s a skill set you can have for most of your life and can pass on to the next generation. It’s an equalizer no matter what disability you have, and it puts you on the same playing field as anybody else out there."
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.