The Magazine

Semper Fly

With wounded warriors in quiet waters

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By MATT LABASH
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Close after dawn and armed with a local map I take a stroll in empty fields, canyons, woods, but preferably near a creek or river because since childhood I’ve loved the sound they make. Moving water is forever in the present tense, a condition we rather achingly avoid.

Richard Gonzalez and tattoos

Richard Gonzalez and tattoos

Collin Brown

—Jim Harrison, Off to the Side 

 

Bozeman, Montana

Nearly every fly fisherman I know is a celebrator of the absurd. You have to be to spend years of your life standing in cold water, flogging it endlessly with a plastic stick, hoping to outsmart a fish with a chickpea-sized brain by duping it with feather and fur. If you’re successful and conscientious, you will punch a hole through its mouth with sharp steel, play it to hand, admire its beauty or power, then gently return it to the water to swim away freely, as if this senseless blood pageant had never occurred. It’s a pastime that rewards those who don’t examine it too closely.

When people ask for justification of such folly, I usually skip the purple stuff about communing with nature, or the genetic imperative to scratch the predatory itch, or the satisfaction that comes from holding a wild creature in a world that tames just about everything. Like most fellow zealots, I’m not interested in justification. I just need to fish. And as I’ve written before, if you spend enough time on the water, you will meet all kinds of fishermen who are dropouts and ne’er-do-wells, men bent on cheating time and ducking out of the world. But you will meet very few hopeless fishermen. For fishing forces optimism even into the soul-sick and the beaten. As the Scottish novelist John Buchan said, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” 

And so last month, I came here to meet an outfit of hope merchants, led by a retired Marine colonel, Eric Hastings, cofounder and head of Warriors and Quiet Waters. Since 2007, Hastings and his merry band of 276 guides, drivers, cooks, board members, and volunteers​—​nobody is paid, including him​—​carry out a mission that is simply stated: “to employ the therapeutic and rehabilitative qualities of fly fishing for trout on Montana’s rivers and streams to help heal traumatically wounded U.S. servicemen and women.” Hastings elaborates: “I know what it’s like to be in combat, and I also know that semper fi​—​always faithful​—​is more than just a slick motto. You can’t just walk off into the sunset. This is an honor contract between Americans and the people who were sent to war in their name. It’s about serving your fellow warriors.”

And serve they do. Relying on mostly modest donations from individuals, seven times a year Warriors and Quiet Waters (WQW) fly out a group of a half dozen wounded soldiers, sailors, or Marines from their hospital wards and rehabilitation programs for a weeklong stay (sometimes they hold couples retreats, too, since wives often suffer as much after the injury). These are warriors fresh off the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ve been shot up, blown up, and every other up that man has designed to obliterate his enemy. Some arrive missing limbs and eyes and chunks of skull. All arrive missing other things they can’t quite articulate​—​the result of either Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), or often both. 

They are housed at the 356 Ranch, a donated spacious log home on 20 private acres, with every amenity from a sauna to a stocked trout pond to a postcard view of the Bridger Mountains. They are looked after by “house moms.” My cycle’s mom, Celia O’Connor (along with her husband, Tom, a retired Navy officer), stays on the grounds in a pickup camper, where she wakes before dawn for days of cooking meals for these visitors. The warriors are kitted up with thousands of dollars worth of 5-weight fly rods and top-of-the-line Simms waders and fishing gear (which​—​unusual in similar programs​—​they get for keeps). They are taken fishing everywhere from farm ponds to spring creeks to Montana’s blue-ribbon big boys, like the Yellowstone and Madison rivers. Mostly learning by doing, they are instructed on everything from casting to mending line to fly tying on pricey Regal vises, which they also take home.

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