<< The Body Politic

Of war and healing waters

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

In the Washington Examiner, James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, recently wrote about the “sea of goodwill”–as the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen put it–of the thousands of organizations that seek to help war veterans transition into civilian life upon their return home. Carafano notes that “soldier for soldier, today’s armed forces may have seen more time in combat than any generation of fighters since the American Revolution. Helping them heal the wounds of war; transition to civilian life; and prepare for a future lifetime of service in their chosen calling will shape what kind of country we become.”

The challenge in this call, Carafano continues, is in getting it right. One organization that he highlights that has gotten it right is the Warriors and Quiet Waters program. Based in Bozeman, Montana, WQW seeks “to provide traumatically injured U.S. servicemen and women from Iraq and Afghanistan with a high quality restorative program, utilizing the therapeutic experience of fly fishing on Montana waters.”

Carafano explains:

There are three keys to getting it right. The first is “contact,” reaching out to veterans and identifying their needs. To find their wounded warriors, volunteers like Eric “Rico” Jones, a retired Marine, took matters into their own hands. Rico recalled finding himself at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, “in the middle of 500 soldiers and 100 Marines who have devastating wounds and would benefit from our program.” It simply took his “breath away.”

Next, Warriors and Quiet Waters learned the second key, “comradeship” — that is, how important it is to bring servicemen together in an environment where they can share trust, confidence and understanding. During fishing season, the Warriors and Quiet Waters runs seven expeditions each with small groups. “I never thought I would develop such close friendships with people that I had never met before,” reflected Army specialist Chris Larkin.

Perhaps most important, Warriors and Quiet Waters learned the value of the third key, “community” — that successful programs are rooted in places and among people who care. With a town population of about 40,000, the organization has more than 400 volunteers in its ranks. Even most of its funding is home-grown with small donations from the people of Bozeman and in-kind donations from local businesses.

Not every town in America can be blessed with rivers and scenery like in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” But every town could muster what it does best to serve those who served. All it takes is a commitment of contact, comradeship and community to make a difference. That is the lesson of the river of caring that runs through Bozeman.

Last year, Matt Labash wrote a moving account of Warriors and Quiet Waters for The Weekly Standard, well worth reading in whole. Here is an excerpt:

[Warriors and Quiet Waters] was born along the lines of the well-established Project Healing Waters, which was started in 2005 at Walter Reed and now has about 80 chapters throughout the country. But Warriors and Quiet Waters tends to be more intensive, plus they outfit the servicemen, presumably affording a better chance to keep them fishing for life. In no way does the organization play politics. After spending a week amongst its staff, I couldn’t tell you how they feel about our wars. It’s beside the point. Warriors don’t get to choose which wars they fight. They just have to fight them.

“They’re not up here to discuss why they got injured,” [Eric] Hastings [a retired Marine and co-founder of WQW]  says. “They’re up here to heal. You can ask the question ‘why’ for the rest of your life, and you’ll never get a good answer. Not one that’s going to make you comfortable with your circumstances. It’s like Job in the Bible​—​‘Why me, Lord?’ ”

WQW is nonreligious, but the name came to Hastings at his Methodist church, where he noticed water motifs everywhere​—​such as on the banner containing a New American Standard translation of the 23rd Psalm: “He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.” Hastings recites the opening line of Norman Maclean’s book, one every fly fisherman knows: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

“Well, I believe that,” says Hastings. “That’s true for me. Always has been. The two interweave and cross over.” So when his pastor preached a sermon on water, the name “Warriors and Quiet Waters” was clinched. He can still recall his pastor’s words: “The thing about a river is, it is never the same. It is constantly changing. It’s changing as we speak. The water is passage. It’s like time. Those molecules are downstream, they’re gone​—​they can’t be regained in any way.” It struck a chord in him, Hastings says, “that you can’t regain what is lost, and that you can’t expect to .  .  .”

He trails off, and I ask him to finish his thought, but he turns back into the salty Marine.

“Well I don’t know .  .  . that’s bulls—t,” he growls. “So the point is, there’s all these quotes about water.”

In Hastings’s truck on our way to meet the wounded warriors at the airport, we are joined by the group’s fly fishing director, Collin Brown, a rangy, dark-humored high school teacher/fishing guide and a fourth generation Montanan, owner of Montana’s Last Best Outfitters. “I was born with a shotgun in one hand and a fly rod in the other,” Collin explains. This comes in handy for the “cast-and-blast” floats he does with clients, in which they carefully catch-and-release beautiful trout, before turning around and pegging ducks out of the sky from his drift boat.

Recalling past fishing operations, Hastings and Brown say the rhythm rarely varies. Servicemen arrive on the first day tight and tepid and often distrustful. Some don’t talk or smile. Most have never fished at all, let alone fly fished. By the third day or so, they’ve been bombarded by loving instruction (even though Collin, who has a special touch with the most introverted warriors, playfully mocks them as nancies after suspect casts). They’ve been overwhelmed by Montana’s storybook scenery and by kindness from the volunteers. They begin understanding that they’re receiving a gift, in being taught to fish, that they can keep reopening for the rest of their lives. So their shoulders start relaxing and their countenances lift. Many who are plagued by insomnia and night terrors start sleeping again.

While some are initially gung-ho about racking up big numbers on the water, often they learn as the week goes on that the best part of fishing is sometimes only tangentially related to actually catching fish. Floating a river like the Yellowstone, says Collin, “I’ve watched more warriors by that third day catch one fish, then reel up, sit in the boat, and just watch.”

There is more than anecdotal evidence behind such claims of rehabilitative benefits. PTSD is notoriously hard to treat. As Charles W. Hoge reported in his book Once a Warrior Always a Warrior, it’s common for no more than 50 percent of treated individuals to show greater improvements than those who remain untreated. In fact, he and his researchers found in a 2007 study that soldiers referred for PTSD from the Department of Defense post-deployment health assessment who failed to show up for their mental health appointments actually did better than those who attended them, with many of the soldiers who improved doing so on their own.

But Rivers of Recovery, a Wyoming-based organization founded in 2008 with a mission similar to WQW’s, has gone further than anyone in actually quantifying the rehabilitative benefits of fishing. They’ve conducted scientific studies, in conjunction with researchers from several universities, on the psychological effects. What they found in a one-month follow up after they’d taken PTSD-diagnosed veterans on a two-day, three-night fly fishing retreat on Utah’s Green River: improvements, often significant ones, in everything from perceptual stress, sleep quality, anxiety, depression, guilt, hostility, and fear. Additionally, they reported a 67 percent increase in perceptions of serenity, a 33 percent increase in self-assuredness, and a 67 percent increase in joviality. Not too shabby for a few days of water-flogging that took place a month prior.

Read Labash’s entire account here, and visit the Warriors and Quiet Waters organization at its website, here.