Fly fishing is the opposite of war, says Eric Hastings: “There’s something about angling that promotes a serenity of the mind.”
With that simple truth, the retired Marine Corps colonel and a group of community volunteers put together a remarkable program called Warriors and Quiet Waters, which brings disabled vets to Bozeman, Mont., for a week of fly fishing.
“What this trip did for me is beyond words,” wrote retired Army Sgt. Scott Riddle of
Easton, Md., after returning from Bozeman. “It was pretty overwhelming for me to come back from theater on a stretcher badly broken, both physically and mentally. I wondered what was left of the life that I had before I went, but I still remember my drive to answer the call and I was willing to sacrifice it all because that was what Americans did.
“What this trip did for me was to restore my faith that great Americans like the people of Bozeman, Mont., are worth defending, even if it means not getting to come home,” Riddle wrote. “This awesome community and this great organization didn’t just teach me fly fishing -- they gave me the gift of peace.”
I had the privilege recently of spending a couple of days in Bozeman, talking with the community volunteers who give this program its heart. And there are literally hundreds of amazing volunteers and corporate donors.
Volunteers attending an orientation dinner packed a small ballroom at the local Hilton Gardens Inn, which the hotel donated for the evening. Fly fishing shops provide free poles, reels, waders and other gear. And several hundred volunteers spend the summer teaching vets to tie flies, organizing expeditions to the Yellowstone River, moving vets from wheelchairs to drift boats, and teaching them how to cast.
Nearly 70 vets, plus some of their spouses, will come to Bozeman this summer for a week of free fly fishing. WQW will spend about $4,500 on each vet, including travel costs, accommodations, meals and fishing gear. Most of the vets come from military hospitals in wheelchairs, missing arms or legs or eyes.
“What really works is the love focused on these warriors,” says Hastings. “They know that someone cares that they will be sacrificing for their country for the rest of their lives.”
With a lot of compassionate thought, this program has evolved since it came into being about eight years ago. One of the first decisions was to make it alcohol-free, thus removing a major temptation for troubled vets.
Board members Bob Julian and Tom O’Connor are wrestling with a decision to move vets into a bigger group home for their week fishing. There would be more space, but would it reduce the bonding through proximity, they wonder.
Another decision came when program organizers learned that most of the vets had never seen Yellowstone National Park, which is right next door. So they decided to rent a tour bus and a guide to take the vets through the park on their next-to-last day.
Turns out there was was an unexpected benefit. “Our warriors slept on the bus on their way down to the park, woke up to watch the wildlife, then slept on the bus on their way back,” says Hastings. And that was a huge benefit to vets who seldom sleep because nightmares blast their slumber like mortar shells.
But a long day out on the water, lulled by a baking sun and rocked by gentle waves, also has a nocturnal benefit. “They sleep at night here,” Hastings says. “”Even on hot days, it cools down at night and our warriors, tired after a big day on the water, sleep better than they have in years.”
Warriors and Quiet Waters is focusing on Iraqi and Afghan vets these days, but it’s also bringing in older vets as volunteers because they have so much to give … and to learn.
“When I came here and started to work with wounded vets, it raised issues that I hadn’t thought about in 40 years,” says Jim Borowski, a board member who’s also a ‘Nam vet. “It’s a different era, but these are like the guys I served with and they speak a language that I know. The time we spent together on the water helped me resolve issues I’d never dealt with before.”
Many vets find it easier to hide in their homes, medicated or self-medicated, accustomed to dealing with the devils they know rather than leaving their comfort zones to deal with devils unknown.
But most of these warriors rise to the challenge and thrive on the change.
WQW board member Steve McGill remembers a kid who came to them after losing both legs to a bomb blast, which also blinded him. But he was laughing and joking as he came off the plane, and his high spirits amazed everyone around him.
“Spending time with these guys changes our lives. Everyone I’ve talked to tells me that they’ve been inspired by these warriors,” says McGrath.