Lifestyle / POSTED 28-Jul-2022

Fishing to Save Lives: Reflections from Manhattan Cup

Yamaha is a four-year returning sponsor of the Manhattan Cup, an all-release charity event created to honor and engage American heroes in need of support and recognition. Initially, the beneficiaries of the event were New York City first responders who suffered from PTSD in the wake of the tragedy and horror of 9/11, but, after a dozen years, the focus shifted to members of the U.S. military returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

“The sad statistic is on average twenty-two veterans take their own lives every day,” said tournament co-director and one of the originators of the event, Yamaha Pro Captain Frank Crescitelli. “That was the impetus behind our ‘Catch 22’ tournament goal, a vow to host at least twenty-two warriors selected to fish with us knowing that at least these brave men and women would not become statistics on that day, and there was a chance the experience could ignite a spark and provide a way forward for them.”
There are many great organizations and numerous fund-raising events dedicated to wounded warriors, but the Manhattan Cup is different. Generating donations takes a back seat to getting at-riskwarriors out on the water in the company of people who appreciate their dedication to duty and their personal sacrifice. Many of the veterans who fish the tournament have never been fishing before or have only limited exposure to the sport with no follow through after returning to civilian life. Warrior liaison Robert Gil finds candidates through his connections at VA hospitals and veteran self-help group meetings to help bring as many as possible to experience the healing powers of fishing. 
In the words of Crescitelli, “The Manhattan Cup was established to use fishing as a force for good, and through the years, our dedicated volunteers and generous sponsors have helped us do just that.”With the help and support of Liberty Landing Marina and their fabulous on-site restaurant the Liberty House, the tournament found a home in the most appropriate location imaginable, directly across the Hudson River from where the Twin Towers once stood. Today, there is a majestic view of the New York City financial district skyline in the shadow of the Freedom Tower, and just a stone’s throw from the Statue of Liberty. To the surprise of many contestants, the waters surrounding New York City offer incredible fishing for striped bass and bluefish. During the past two events, striped bass weighing more than 50 pounds won the coveted Manhattan Cup. Many of the fish were released carrying Gray FishTag Research streamer tags, and every fish was released alive. 
The 21st Manhattan Cup took place on June 3, 2022, with thirty-two warriors on hand to fish with a throng of anglers, charter captains, and light tackle guides, who either donated their boats and services for the day or paid an entry fee to enter and support the cause. It was a wonderful day of fishing, celebration, and comradery. Here are reflections from two very special warriors who attended the event about their experiences and what the Manhattan Cup means to them. 

Robert first fished the Cup as a struggling, deeply depressed Iraq war vet in 2011.  He is a battle-scarred hero with the medals and Purple Hearts to prove it, not that his humble nature would ever make that a topic of conversation. 
A city kid who grew up on the mean streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Gil never engaged in outdoor pursuits. “I didn’t even know we had parks back then,” he commented. Gil watched the towers fall at the age of sixteen and vowed that violation of his city would not go unanswered. He joined the United States Army after high school and rose to the rank of sergeant in 19 Delta Calvary Scouts, one of the units scheduled to ship out for the Middle East. His unit’s responsibility was long-range reconnaissance, targeting and capturing high-value targets, and training Iraqi police.   
During his four-year enlistment he did two 15-month tours with multiple deployments based out of Ramadi, the heart of the enemy insurgency. 
“Command would shift us around to enemy hotspots,” Gil said. “Wherever enemy activity was the worst they would send my unit in to put the fire out. An article in Stars and Stripes said 19 Delta was the most combat active unit in Iraq in 2006, but it was like that during my entire time in country. We left base in small convoys and head toward suspected enemy strongholds as bait to attract ambushes and draw out the enemy to engage. As a result, we took a lot of casualties.” 
On his last combat patrol, Gil was the gunner sitting on an open turret atop a lightly armored Humvee® with a 50-caliber machine gun at the ready. As the patrol’s lead truck, he was the first to encounter a suicide bomber driving an explosive-packed car directly at the convoy. He opened fire attempting to neutralize the attacker when the vehicle erupted in a massive explosion just twenty-five yards from his position, saving the patrol but causing catastrophic damage to his truck and its occupants. Gil suffered traumatic brain injury and critical physical wounds that required removal of shattered bones from his body. That put an end to his deployment and started a long, difficult road back to civilian life marred by horrible bouts with PTSD and battles with the VA to get the help he needed. His psychological state was so unbearable that he tried to take his own life. 
He finally started getting some of the help he needed in 2009 and was in and out of VA hospitals until 2011 when one of the doctors who took a strong interest in his condition got him to try tying flies to help with his depression. He found it helpful but had no fishing experience to justify the effort. Shortly thereafter, he learned he was going to something called the Manhattan Cup, a fishing tournament for veterans that, at the time, took place in the lower Manhattan waterfront. 
“It was a shock, the furthest thing from combat,” Gil recalled. “I’d never been fishing before and had no idea what to expect, but I met some wonderful people and ended up catching and releasing the largest striped bass of the tournament. I won the Manhattan Cup trophy. I returned the next year and fished with baseball great Wade Boggs, who participated as a celebrity angler. I was more relaxed and enjoyed the day even more. I started coming out of my shell, looking for ways to go fishing on my own. It was a life-changing experience. I honestly don’t think I would be alive today if it wasn’t for my experience at the Manhattan Cup.” 
Gil became friends with Capt. Frank Crescitelli, and for the last four years, served as the official tournament warrior liaison, responsible for helping the tournament organizers bring veterans with similar circumstances to experience the Manhattan Cup. 
Gil’s life has changed in many ways; he is a husband and father. He still experiences what he calls his “dark times,” but they are tempered by the many good times he has had since the fateful day he fished his first Cup. He works with veterans’ self-help groups to get others the assistance they desperately need from what he see as a frequently dysfunctional VA system, and he is involved with Project Healing Waters where he teaches other warriors how to fly fish. 
As he told the entire audience at the awards dinner in 2014, “You might not recognize just what you are accomplishing here, but the Manhattan Cup saved my life.”

Matthew Braiotta
Two years ago, the Manhattan Cup organizers received a call from Matthew Braiotta, the Assistant Director of the Veterans Benefit Administration’s New York Regional Office based in Manhattan. He said he heard good things about the Manhattan Cup and, as an avid saltwater fly fisherman, he wanted to enter with his Yamaha-powered Boston Whaler® skiff and a couple of friends to experience the tournament himself. 
Braiotta was a U.S. Army sergeant in the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, Third Infantry Division. He saw deployment as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and later in combat early in the Iraq War where he was wounded by an IED. His initial treatment was at a military hospital in Germany followed by months at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC. Braiotta’s recovery took well over a year and during that time he realized that keeping busy was the key to pushing back many of the psychological issues that can affect soldiers. But he had a secret weapon—fishing.
“Toward that end, I went back to school and attended Georgetown University where I enrolled in a program called VET I.T., which stands for information and technology,” said Braiotta. “As part of the program, I did an internship at the Veterans Administration and found the mission one I wanted to continue with after graduation. Army non-commissioned officers have a creed and the part of it that always stuck with me is that my primary responsibility is to always protect my soldiers to the best of my ability. That made working for the VA a natural transition, an extension of the creed where my responsibility to protect fellow soldiers can continue. Once I was with the agency full time, I found personal satisfaction in helping other veterans access the programs and benefits they need and deserve and, in the process, do what I could to improve the system.” 
Braiotta worked his way up to the number two position at the New York Regional Office of the VBA, one of the busiest offices in the country.“I know it’s not a perfect agency, which is why I continue to try and rise in the hierarchy so I can help improve services and performance.” Braiotta grew up in a small town on Long Island where his grandfather taught him how to fish. Later his uncle, a Vietnam vet who flew Huey® helicopters during the conflict, became his fishing buddy and mentor. “When I got back home after my recovery and discharge,” he reminisced, “my uncle and I spent a whole week on Martha’s Vineyard fishing for stripers and bluefish. It was a catharsis, a way to get back to what normal life was supposed to be. I grew up reading The Long Island Fisherman magazine and spending time on the bays and beaches fishing. Getting back into it was healing. I fell in love with fly fishing and joined the Metropolitan Fly-Fishing Club. It was one of the club members who told me about the Manhattan Cup and how its purpose is to get vets out on the water. I wanted to see what it was all about.” 
Braiotta entered his Yamaha-powered Boston Whaler® in the 20th Anniversary event last year, but called well in advance to introduce himself, let the tournament organizers know about his position with the VBA, and offer to help in any way. The tournament, its organization and mission made a big impression on him. “There are a lot of things that really impressed me about the Manhattan Cup that first year,” said Braiotta. “First, the logistics of putting on the event are complex. The facilities, the sponsors, the captains and private boat owners, fuel, meals, box lunches, shirts, gift bags, raffle items, rods and reels for the vets, and then the dinner and awards. This is not easy to put together. But there is a different vibe at the event. As soon as I walked into the room where everyone was enjoying a buffet breakfast and waiting for the pre-fishing meeting, I saw all these faces so excited to be there. These are people who love their country and love their veterans and patriots. I felt I could trust anyone in that room. 

“As a veteran, it made me feel appreciated just being surrounded by these wonderful people. This is what really sets the Manhattan Cup apart. There is no agenda, no organization to promote, no push to raise piles of money. It’s all about getting the vets out on the water, making them feel appreciated, helping them fall in love with something they may have never done before that might give them something to do in the future. So many of the veterans I talked to during the awards dinner left with that spark, an understanding that fishing just might be something they can continue to do on their own. Something that can help them feel more whole again. Richard Torres, who won the Cup that year, told everyone who would listen that fishing is his new happy place. The Manhattan Cup is special that way, and I will continue to support it however I can in the future.”

The Manhattan Cup takes place annually on the first Friday in June. It’s made possible through the efforts of a group of volunteers under the direction of tournament co-directors Frank Crescitelli and Gary Caputi. Underwritten by the Fisheries Conservation Trust (a 501(c)(3) not for profit), the Manhattan Cup is also supported through individual donations and the financial support of a host of generous corporate sponsors. Yamaha is proud to be among those sponsors.

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