When Tom Sturgeon and his wife began Team Vet, it was funded by the disability he receives. Neither of them had any idea that the program would have exploded into what it is today.
A retired, hearing impaired Mississippi Fire Chief, disabled, decorated veteran and athlete, Tom also suffers from seizures. He’s also a recent transplant to Scottsboro from Kentucky. After coming down to fish, Tom met Sam Mash, a local disabled veteran, and the two began fishing together as Team Vet in tournaments, with Sam eventually talking Tom into moving down here. The team have fished all over the United States, with next year’s calendar filling up quickly.
Tom relies on his service dog and the help of phone apps, lip reading classes and sign language classes to communicate with the world around him.
“I can’t hear take-off, but Sam can, and he can’t drive the boat, but I can. Together we are one, and we will whip your tail,” Tom said.
Team Vet takes disabled veterans, first responders and disabled children out onto the water. Each person receives a knapsack, rod, reel and bait. While they fish competitively, every cent they win goes straight back into the Team Vet program, enabling them to do more at home and nationwide.
While these are the material things Team Vet provides, what they’re really giving away cannot be valued with a price. They are offering a place, space and person to listen. Someone who has been there and knows exactly what they’re contending with.
Tom himself is familiar with depression and being overwhelmed with what he was left to carry inside himself. He speaks openly about the times he has attempted suicide when the recovery from a brain tumor surgery became too much to bear. Four times, Tom came close to ending his life.
“I still remember the look on my wife’s face when she came home and saw me. I will never forget that look. I carry that bullet with me everywhere I go. I want people to know that I am here to listen, and I will always have time for them. As a former fire chief, I can understand and be there for any first responders. As a veteran, I can be there for our veterans. As a deaf man, I can be there for the disabled.”
Word is indeed spreading, as is support. Team Vet has been gifted with 20 acres in Tennessee to be used for Team Vet to go hunting on. There will also be space for the installation of several shooting houses on the property that is now in Team Vet’s name. Tom and Sam are hoping to find the same setup a little closer to home in Alabama, as well.
Tom also has a soft spot for disabled children. Thursday, December 9, 2021, Team Vet will be at Nelson Elementary parking lot to surprise the special needs children that attend there.
“I want it to be the best Christmas they have ever had.”
Team Vet is currently accepting donations of toys for these children. There are nine total. One of them prefers anything Mickey Mouse. Another prefers toys that light up and vibrate. The rest of them have not expressed a specific preference, so any toy is more than welcome. If you do decide to purchase gifts for this event, please bring them to the VFW on Heroes Drive in Scottsboro on Wednesday, December 8th from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
“I want them to see someone like me, and I want them to know they can do anything. I want them to know they are special. A person with a disability is one of the strongest people to walk this earth.”
Tom and Sam are currently seeking an office space that will allow someone to walk in off the street if they need to talk. They are also seeking a pontoon boat that can go toward allowing disabled children in wheelchairs to be taken out with their families for a day of fun on the water.
Team Vet’s boat is also out of commission, in need of repairs. In addition, Sam’s boat was badly damaged, and they have not been able to afford the repairs for that, either.
They are also seeking individuals who would be willing to take someone out onto the water while they are across the country fishing in their fundraising tournaments. Team Vet would like to have the option of calling a volunteer up to see if they would be able to take someone on the water. There will be a meeting at the VFW for any volunteers, so they will be coached on what to look for when someone opens up to them and needs to talk.
There are many activities coming up on Team Vet’s schedule. To learn more about these activities, please visit Team Vet on Facebook and message them there.
by Martha Smith