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The annual billfish tournament off the coast of Mexico has always been special to the Harris family. What started off as a fishing trip between the four brothers and their father in the mid-1980s eventually morphed into the Cinco de Mayo Billfish Tournament, a charity event featuring between 30 and 40 Fairfax County residents vying for the biggest catch off the Yucatan Peninsula.

In 2006 the family was devastated to learn that Dave, one of the brothers, had been diagnosed with melanoma. After a brave fight, Dave passed away in 2008, prompting the annual event to be renamed The Dave Harris Memorial Billfish Tournament.

A new wrinkle added even more meaning to this year’s tournament, which took place May 2-6 in Puerto Aventuras. The Harris family reached out to Wounded Warriors in Action, a foundation serving the nation’s wounded Purple Heart recipients by providing outdoor sporting activities as a means to recognize and honor their sacrifice. The foundation facilitates 40 outings per year, but this year they agreed to make it 41.

So in addition to the usual crew of Fairfax residents and friends, this year’s trip included seven Wounded Warriors from around the country: Gabriel Fierros (hit by a grenade explosion in Iraq), Raymond Kusch (lost left leg to an improvised explosive device), Gabe Martinez (lost both legs to an IED), Mark Broda (injured by a truck bomb in Saudi Arabia), Justin Constantine (suffered a shot to the head in Iraq), Travis von Seggern (hit by an IED in Iraq) and Arthur Rizer (suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by an IED).

“Dave was an incredibly charitable guy. He always thought about other people and never himself,” said Dan Harris, a Fair Oaks resident who helped organize the tournament. “We thought it would be great to get involved with Wounded Warriors and honor everything they’ve done for us.”

All proceeds from the tournament went to the usual group of charities, including the Melanoma Research Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Hospital and local children’s charities in Mexico. Donations to help bring on the Wounded Warriors this year came from a number of private donors and organizations like LW Jager Companies, The Mason Companies, Willard’s Barbeque, Strittmatter Companies and American Waste and Disposal.

The seven veterans, paired on three different boats, all ended up catching at least one fish in the Caribbean waters. The big winner was Gabe Martinez, who spent 45 minutes hauling in a blue marlin that weighed between 175 and 200 pounds.

The fishing feats were impressive, but this year’s participants were most struck by the resiliency the veterans displayed throughout the trip. Mark O’Brien, one of the tournament organizers, recalled the ease with which Raymond, a single amputee, and Gabe, a double amputee, hopped down to the beach, removed their prosthetic legs and pushed themselves into the water.

“It’s healing for them and beneficial for us to see that and say, ‘You know what, I have no room to complain,’” O’Brien said.

This year’s bunch also found time for golf, diving, sightseeing amid the Aztec ruins, a Bon Jovi concert and various nightlife shenanigans. Though there were moments where some of the guys had a hard time relating to the daily challenges of the veterans, O’Brien insisted the Wounded Warriors often seemed more normal than anybody else.

“They’re the ones popping the tequila shots, drinking beer, slapping us on the back and making fun of us and making fun of themselves,” O’Brien said. “They had the sense of humor that made us feel comfortable and say, ‘You know what, these guys are just real.’”

By the end of the trip, guys who had known each other less than a week were hugging each other like lifelong friends.

“It was like we were one big gang,” said Harris, who plans to repeat the experience next year. “There wasn’t any dividing line between the Wounded Warriors and the regular participants.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com