US ARMY PARATROOPERS WITH THE 82ND AIRBORNE DIVISION PAUSE BRIEFLY DURING COMBAT OPERATIONS IN AFGHANISTAN TO MOURN THE LOSS OF TWO OF THEIR OWN.

Why flyfishing works for traumatically wounded combat veterans

The two pairs of boots sit next to each other on my closet floor: old, waterproof, knee-high LaCrosse Alphas, and the tan combat boots that I wore as a paratrooper fighting in Afghanistan. I'm attached to them both, but for very different reasons. I enlisted in 2008, at 41 years of age, during "The Surge"—when the Army was sending an increasing number of warm bodies to our country's ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Imagine a strong riptide pulling surfers out to sea, sucking in the occasional beachcomber. That was me—feet in the water, thinking that I might want to surf too. Four years and two combat tours later, on leave from the 82nd Airborne Division, I was standing in New York's Cohocton River in my rubber boots, thankful to still be alive.

With less than a year left in my enlistment at that point, I would not deploy again. My family had been spared a catastrophic injury or death. It was autumn. My buddy and sometimes mentor, "Wild Bill" Sciotti, was fishing around the bend. I held a five-weight in my hand with a dry fly floating back to me in the swirls of clear but unserious water; I was here to decompress on Sciotti's childhood trout stream.

In Afghanistan, what little water there was in the high desert of Ghazni Province gathered in a single languid stretch of the Tarnak River, but also existed in a lymph-like network of hand-dug, subterranean irrigation tunnels known as karezes. In these tunnels our infantry had aggressively hunted Taliban fighters by flashlight and pistol, just as their forebears had pursued the Viet Cong in a not-so-distant past.

Water was also found in community wells spread throughout the mud-hut villages we patrolled, but these were mostly karez-fed. Fish would gather there in sunny pools, only to be shot by our hungry Afghan-army partners with their Kalashnikovs. They sometimes used dynamite or rocket-propelled grenades. I once watched an Afghan soldier buy a live chicken from a villager and then hold onto the still-kicking hen through an entire 30-minute firefight. The only other fishing I witnessed "downrange" was by a handful of Polish soldiers drowning worms on DNA Creek, a muddy ditch that ran like a sewer through Forward Operating Base Warrior, in southern Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. The Poles rarely left the security of the base. Word was that an unofficial détente had been struck with the local Taliban. This wasn't the case after our unit arrived. The summer was so violent that the governing Quetta Shura in Pakistan passed a directive to local Taliban leaders that halted direct-fire attacks due to the aggressiveness of our paratroopers and losses suffered by their fighters.

US ARMY SCOUT SNIPERS MOUNT A STRATEGIC HILL IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN TO PROVIDE OVERWATCH FOR AN INFANTRY PLATOON PREPARING TO CLEAR A TALIBANCONTROLLED VILLAGE.
US ARMY SCOUT SNIPERS MOUNT A STRATEGIC HILL IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN TO PROVIDE OVERWATCH FOR AN INFANTRY PLATOON PREPARING TO CLEAR A TALIBANCONTROLLED VILLAGE.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. MACLEOD

I remember nearly every minute of every patrol in those combat boots; the excitement of contact, the fear of being overrun, the terror of exploding mortar-rounds striking soldiers all around me. Combat was a champion drug: every time, I wanted no more and I wanted way more. But I'd made it through. On the Cohocton, my respite from combat was short-lived. It wasn't the weather, though Bill and I were quite literally casting into the gales of Hurricane Sandy (thanks to the Army's rigid leave policy, we couldn't reschedule the trip). I'd already netted a few saucy browns, but my head wasn't right. In the quicksilver of my mind came looping imagery of a copper-cased bullet flying in at the speed of a wigeon, head-high, right to the lens of my left eye, entering with a great shattering. As I had given, I would now receive. It wasn't scary; it just was. Over and over, the same every time, this was my peace on the river. But with war, there was no peace.

FISH WOULD GATHER THERE IN SUNNY POOLS, ONLY TO BE SHOT BY OUR HUNGRY AFGHAN-ARMY PARTNERS WITH THEIR KALASHNIKOVS.

A year later I was a free man, discharge papers in hand, back home in Bozeman with my wife and two kids, at the height of a Montana summer. Over the truck radio I caught an interview with the director of a local nonprofit that catered to combat veterans. He was a former Marine helicopter pilot who had deployed to Afghanistan while I was there. Less than an hour later, I was sitting in his office. The organization, Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation (WQW), was pairing traumatically injured servicemen and women with flyfishing guides and fishing companions, showering them with gear, and sharing an all-expenses-paid week with them on some of Montana's best trout waters. "Then magic happens," the director told me, and broken lives were transformed. Remembering my day on the Cohocton, I was skeptical.

In the army, I had been a combat correspondent. Documenting war while participating in it is an experience unique to media soldiers. It requires the big-picture understanding of senior officers, combined with the ruck-humping misery and carnal danger of grunt life. On combat patrols with the infantry, I maintained a permanent state of "on"—absorbing every movement of friend, suspected foe, and bystander. It was exhilarating and exhausting. But effective, in that I was able to capture some of the most iconic images of the war in Afghanistan and avoid getting killed in the process. Since discharging, I have used the skills I learned downrange to photograph combat veterans, alienated from civil life by war and its egregious moral and physical wounding, immersing themselves in a sort of homecoming on the quiet waters of southwest Montana.

A SOLDIER RETURNS HOME TO HIS WIFE FOLLOWING A VIOLENT COMBAT TOUR IN AFGHANISTAN.
A SOLDIER RETURNS HOME TO HIS WIFE FOLLOWING A VIOLENT COMBAT TOUR IN AFGHANISTAN.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. MACLEOD

As war documentarian Sebastian Junger wrote in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, "Today's veterans often come home to find that, although they're willing to die for their country, they're not sure how to live for it." When vets arrive at Quiet Waters Ranch, their hollowed eyes often express this sentiment: "I am broken. I cannot. These wounds are for what? For whom? Where are my brothers?" Flyfishing, I have come to understand, gives them back the significance that had sustained them in service: authenticity, competency, and connectedness. As it had for Hemingway's fictional Great-War character, Nick Adams, camping and flyfishing alone in upper Michigan's North Woods in the classic literary short story, "The Big Two-Hearted River." Tie on a convincing nymph, make a believable drift, fold into the forest, the river, the fish, and nothing else. It makes sense, but why had it not worked for me, I wondered? While my prose is surely lacking, my trout were every bit as crisp and fine as Nick's trout had been. What was I missing?

People, it turns out. Veterans need other veterans and people who care about them. It is the fishing guides, the companions, and even the "house moms" that make the difference for wounded veterans trying to piece their lives whole again through WQW. In fact, early drafts of Hemingway's tale—of treating "shell-shock" or PTSD through flyfishing—have Nick Adams accompanied by a close group of friends, which is historically more aligned with Hemingway's own post-war experience of fishing the Upper Peninsula's Fox River with buddies.

TRAUMATICALLY INJURED IN THE SAME BLAST IN AFGHANISTAN IN 2012, NICHOLAS WILLIAMS AND JOHN HOSEA FOLLOW GUIDE GRANT GRIGSBY UP MONTANA'S LEGENDARY SIXTEENMILE CREEK AS PART OF WARRIORS AND QUIET WATERS FOUNDATION'S FISHING EXPERIENCE.
TRAUMATICALLY INJURED IN THE SAME BLAST IN AFGHANISTAN IN 2012, NICHOLAS WILLIAMS AND JOHN HOSEA FOLLOW GUIDE GRANT GRIGSBY UP MONTANA'S LEGENDARY SIXTEENMILE CREEK AS PART OF WARRIORS AND QUIET WATERS FOUNDATION'S "FISHING EXPERIENCE."
PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. MACLEOD

How does it work? Six combat-wounded veterans are vetted by two WQW staffers who are themselves Purple-Heart recipients. With a pool of nearly three million veterans from recent wars, there is a certain population of rent-seeking vacationers that are to be avoided, and of those legitimately suffering from the effects of combat, only those ready and willing to put the oars to positive change are invited.

Participants arrive at Quiet Waters Ranch on a Monday and are geared up by several sponsors, most notably Simms, who supplies soft goods like boots, waders, jackets, and seasonally appropriate accessories. Rajeff Sports provides Echo rods and reels, RIO donates leaders and tippets, and Dr. Slick provides floatant, forceps, and the like. Mystery Ranch and Blackhawk provide packs. Bozeman-area businesses and individuals contribute all manner of goods and services.

The following day, participants are each paired with a local fishing guide and a "warrior companion." The companion is a civilian volunteer who acts as a sort of two-way placenta between military and civilian worlds. He (and very often she) enables veterans to extend themselves beyond the familiar military community, which helps hasten reintegration. But the companions also bring back to their own network of people the knowledge of what post-9/11 traumatically injured combat veterans are faced with and what they need to move forward.

On the first day of fishing, guides instruct on the basics of fly-casting and how to use the new gear while fishing stocked trout ponds in and around Bozeman. Wednesday and Friday are river days— drifting and wading the Yellowstone and Madison, or possibly the Missouri, Gallatin, or Jefferson. Thursday is typically a day of rest, though guests often use it to fish the three stocked ponds on the 112-acre ranch.

JOSHUA MCCART, AN ARMY VETERAN WOUNDED IN COMBAT, CASTS FOR TROUT ON MONTANA'S YELLOWSTONE RIVER.
JOSHUA MCCART, AN ARMY VETERAN WOUNDED IN COMBAT, CASTS FOR TROUT ON MONTANA'S YELLOWSTONE RIVER.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. MACLEOD

The restorative process consists of no traditional therapy, and few kumbaya moments. "There is something special about the connection to a wild fish through this gossamer line," says WQW co-founder and retired Marine fighter pilot Eric Hastings. "Warriors are out all day in nature the way we have been in nature for millennia. Then they go back with fellow warriors and they break bread, communing with them, talking, trusting them to share their stories. You learn how to cope if not recover. And you learn you're not the only one."

If people are the active ingredient to healing, then how important is flyfishing? Hastings believes that other physiological psycho-motor activities that require the full attention of body and mind might also fit the formula— think skiing, golf, equine therapy. Yet it was flyfishing that he turned to when he was medically evacuated from Vietnam in 1969.

In the five years that I have photographed the WQW program, I've watched hundreds of my fellow combat veterans begin the recovery from war at the end of a fly rod. Sometimes they are zip-tied to the rod because they have lost one or both hands. I have photographed veterans with no legs, or only pieces of legs; guys with remanufactured spines and rebuilt bones, ailing organs, and facial disfigurations; warriors suffering from debilitating headaches, nausea, and sleeplessness, often the result of traumatic brain injury and/or PTSD.

I'VE WATCHED HUNDREDS OF MY FELLOW COMBAT VETERANS BEGIN THE RECOVERY FROM WAR AT THE END OF A FLY ROD. SOMETIMES THEY ARE ZIP-TIED TO THE ROD BECAUSE THEY HAVE LOST ONE OR BOTH HANDS.

The fact is, due to the advances of medicine and our ability to more quickly retrieve our casualties from the battlefield, significantly more gravely wounded combatants survive blasts, gunshot wounds, and the like than in previous conflicts. For instance, while repelling a Taliban ambush, one of my unit's squad leaders was shot in the neck through the carotid artery. Between the time he was medevacked by helicopter and airlifted by plane to Germany, he died twice and was revived both times, and he was ultimately saved when surgeons spliced a section of Gore-Tex fabric onto the lacerated artery to repair it. Amazing stuff.

In ten years, WQW has served more than 600 service men and women from around the country. The purchase of the ranch and its ADA-compliant, 10,000-square-foot house a few years ago greatly simplified logistics, allowing the veteran service organization to double its annual program. They have also tweaked the basic "FX" (Fishing Experience) formula to include active-duty special forces, warrior alumni, couples, caregiver-only, coaching-focused, and all-female events. In recent years, there has been a stronger push to "go deeper, not wider," to sustain the journey of recovery in the lives of participants by inviting some to engage in multiple FXs.

FORMER US ARMY SOLDIER JAVIER RIVERA AND HEAD WQW GUIDE JESSE LENEVE SHOW OFF JAVIER'S CATCH FROM THE STOCKED PONDS OF QUIET WATERS RANCH NEAR BOZEMAN. ALAN BABIN, A US ARMY PARATROOPER WOUNDED IN IRAQ IN 2003, CELEBRATES THE CATCH OF A LARGE TROUT AFTER JUST LEARNING TO FISH WITH A FLY ROD.
ABOVE: FORMER US ARMY SOLDIER JAVIER RIVERA AND HEAD WQW GUIDE JESSE LENEVE SHOW OFF JAVIER'S CATCH FROM THE STOCKED PONDS OF QUIET WATERS RANCH NEAR BOZEMAN
ABOVE RIGHT: ALAN BABIN, A US ARMY PARATROOPER WOUNDED IN IRAQ IN 2003, CELEBRATES THE CATCH OF A LARGE TROUT AFTER JUST LEARNING TO FISH WITH A FLY ROD.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. MACLEOD

John Hosea of Las Vegas is one of those veterans. Deployed to Afghanistan just to the east of my unit, the US Army infantryman was severely injured when his armored vehicle rolled over a roadside bomb so powerful that it landed the vehicle's diesel engine nearly 1,000 feet from the road. Hosea's first trip to WQW was with his wife, Sara. He returned as an alumni companion for his buddy Nick, who was the machine-gunner on Hosea's vehicle the day it was blown up. In 2017, he participated in the organization's first "coaching FX," where vets were paired with a life coach to achieve personal, defined goals. This past year, Sara took part in the organization's first caregiver's FX. Sara usually outfishes him, but Hosea doesn't care. "It is beyond calming," he says.

Another multi-FX veteran is Mike Mendoza, a former Marine scout sniper who was awarded the Navy Cross in 2004 for heroism in Fallujah, Iraq. Two deployments later, Mendoza took grenade shrapnel to the chest. The Illinois native appreciates how flyfishing forces him to its pace, rather than the other way around. "You have to take the time to scout, plan, and prepare with flyfishing," he says. "You learn how to become a student again because technique is so important. You get better at it as you slow down."

That's saying something for a man who just last year made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most "70.3" Iron Man races completed in a year (he completed 26 triathlons and two marathons in 2018, in only eight months). Mendoza has attended nearly every type of WQW offering, and with his wife of 17 years, Kelly, he has returned twice in supervisory roles. This winter, he and another veteran led the organization's second Ice Fishing FX.

Great, but can a single week of flyfishing afforded the average participant really have life-changing effects? Hastings likes to tell the story of Sergeant First Class John Carter, one of the program's original participants. Shielding fellow soldiers from a grenade, Carter lost his left arm from the elbow down, and his left leg from the knee down. After a day of fishing Montana's legendary Sixteen-Mile Creek, where part of A River Runs Through It was filmed, Carter was so enthralled by the wildlife, the scenery, and the peacefulness that he said to his guide, "I could have just sat on the bank and imagined I was in heaven. I will never forget my day. It was like a year's worth of therapy wrapped into a single moment."

Warriors have returned home from their single week of flyfishing Montana and sold the gun they had bought to kill themselves, torn up divorce papers, quit drinking, enrolled in universities and trade schools, and shared their new love of flyfishing with their children. A combat medic once told me that his day in waders was his first happy day in more than a decade.

I have my own opinion of why flyfishing heals, informed by my time as a combat photographer. One morning at a far-flung combat outpost, I picked up NPR photographer David Gilkey from the helicopterlanding zone. Gilkey was a conflict photographer and one of only a few civilians I have known with the proverbial "1,000-yard stare" sunk into the features of his face. (He was killed on June 5, 2016, while covering a fight in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.) Gilkey had just arrived at Combat Outpost Giro to spend some time on the front lines with our paratroopers who were in daily contact with the enemy fighters.

Before I could even point out the chow tent, the photographer asked, "Well Sergeant Mac, have you made any art yet today?" Well, no, I replied, but I had made my bed. It seemed an odd question at an outpost where three of our young paratroopers had just been killed in combat. But I get it now. It has to do with authenticity, competency, and connectedness, of the need to reach out for those gravities to get through the dehumanizing, shattering forces of warfare.

PATRICK MYERS, A FORMER MARINE WHO WAS GRIEVOUSLY WOUNDED BY A ROADSIDE BOMB IN WESTERN IRAQ IN 2005, HIGHFIVES FLYFISHING GUIDE NATHAN GUFFEY AFTER LANDING A TROUT.
PATRICK MYERS, A FORMER MARINE WHO WAS GRIEVOUSLY WOUNDED BY A ROADSIDE BOMB IN WESTERN IRAQ IN 2005, HIGHFIVES FLYFISHING GUIDE NATHAN GUFFEY AFTER LANDING A TROUT. A PARTICIPANT OF AN EARLIER "SOLO FX," PATRICK RETURNED TO WQW IN 2017 TO SHARE HIS NEW LOVE OF FLYFISHING WITH WIFE, MINDY, IN A "COUPLE’S FX."
PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. MACLEOD

Art is photographing a memorial service for fallen soldiers in a meaningful manner. It's lying on my ribcage in the cold gravel and selecting the right lens, propping the camera up just so to look up at the helmets of those killed in action, and across to their brothers-in-arms, heads bent to hands, the somber clouds above the fortified outpost, the snowy ridgelines of the Hindu Kush. It's selecting the correct motion-blurring slow shutter-speed so that every viewer will see the flag fluttering as a strong wind blows through the stars and stripes. They will see, from the contrasting stillness of the soldiers' faces, how life has temporarily been knocked from them.

In part, the art of photography allows the currency of suffering to be spent in a meaningful manner. In its demand for skill that only envies sharper skills earned from a thousand casts; in its requirement that a mind be profoundly committed to the task of reading a river's currents and hatches; in its need for one's physical body—torn, stapled, screwed, or not—to be in contact with the life-affirming forces of sunshine, a cool breeze, river stones, and running water, flyfishing commits us wholly to the everythingness of a beautiful wild trout.

In flyfishing, we find the great trinity of authenticity, competency, and connectedness that fuels what we know as art. I think it's the art of flyfishing that heals.

Just my opinion.

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