With wounded warriors in quiet waters
Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By MATT LABASH
As a young boy in the days before felt soles, Hastings and his father stuck carpet swatches to the bottom of their boots with Barge Cement to grip the eel-slick rocks of the Gallatin, where a misstep in a fast run can send you on a very long swim. He started fishing at eight years old, but put it away as a teenager after discovering beer and girls. Upon going active duty in the Marines, he returned to fly fishing in earnest. Even while on deployments, “I had to get back to Montana to fish.” In some ways, fishing saved him. Hastings is a professed “alcoholic—haven’t had a drink since 1975.” After Vietnam, he says, taking a pregnant pause, “Some aspects of this story I don’t really want to talk about. . . . Let’s just say that I knew that I needed to get away to a peaceful place. I got out on the river, and that brought the peace almost immediately.”
Having moved 28 times in a 30-year Marine career, the Hastings family is still about as committed to the military as one can be. Both adult sons are Marine officers—having pulled deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving no rest for Eric’s war-weary wife, Jean, who says, “If you send your husband, you can always get another husband. If you send your son, you don’t get another son.” But several years back, when the couple went on a fishing trip together in Canada for “prairie sharks” (northern pike), Hastings’s wheels started turning as to how he could bring wounded warriors to Montana to find the peace he found through fishing.
Hastings joined forces with a local retired doctor named Volney Steele, who was having similar thoughts. Their organization 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,” Hastings 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.
Many volunteers with WQW tell me that doctors and physical therapists have told them they saw more improvement in patients after one of these six-day trips than they had in six months of conventional therapy and rehab. And WQW hosts some very hard cases, as is evident from Hastings’s and Brown’s war stories.
There was Elliot Miller, a Navy SEAL, a leg amputee who’d lost so much blood he had nerve injury and brain damage, could barely move his hands, and had to grunt to communicate. When he arrived, he couldn’t put sugar in a cup of coffee. But during a fly-tying lesson from which he felt excluded, he bumped Hastings in the back of the knees in his wheelchair to gain access to the table. Then, under the patient tutelage of their fly-tying instructor, he tied a Woolly Bugger. It took him 45 minutes to complete one, but his doctors back home were dumbfounded.
There was Erin Schaefer, an Army sergeant, a double below-knee amputee. Schaefer, after a satisfying day of fishing, walked up 13 log steps to his room in his prosthetics, removed them, then hobbled back down on his butt and hands. Though dabbing his still-weeping stumps with cloth, says Hastings, he arrived at the “dinner table with a happy smile on his sun-reddened face.” And there was Blake Smith, a Marine captain, a leg amputee with significant nerve damage and wheelchair-confined. Despite his demeaning personal care issues in close quarters, Hastings recalls watching “him blossom after days of instruction and fishing, and holding and crying with him in my own anger and sadness, yet buoyed by his strength in the face of unfairness and PTSD.”
On a lighter note, Collin fished with Adam Kisielewski, a Marine who’d lost an arm and leg after an IED blast. Adam established an all-time record for the program, while learning to strip line with his teeth and wrap it around his stump. He caught 100 fish in three days. So frantic were he and Collin to hit 100 (Adam caught 60-plus trout on hoppers on Sixteen Mile Creek) that it got to the point, says Collin, “that he would jump on my back and I’d carry him to the next run. It was hilarious. A hundred fish! What the hell? Did we just do that? As we were driving home, he told me he had sand in his foot. Usually you pull off a boot. He pulled off his foot. I have a picture of us going 70 down a dirt road to get back for the farewell dinner. We’re hauling ass, and he’s emptying his actual foot of sand.”
Perhaps most impressive was Marine corporal Matt Bradford, a double amputee, one leg above the knee, the other below, with a shrapnel-injured right hand, TBI, and PTSD. Additionally, he’s blind. That didn’t stop him from learning how to catch fish on a dry fly. Being a good Marine, like so many of these new fishing recruits, he was a fast learner and knew how to follow orders. A spotter guide would use the clock code, and Bradford learned how to throw 20 meters of line at the 2 o’clock position. The guide would tell him to mend line, let it drift, standby, and then when the fish would rise, he’d yell “strike.” The first time, Bradford set the fish so hard he yanked it out of the water, clean over his shoulder. But he settled down, and caught fish after fish. “How perfect is that?” asks Hastings. “The next thing you know, there’s a blind guy with a rainbow or brown ripping all over the river.”
We get to the airfield, and a group of volunteers turn out to receive the wounded warriors—this time six Marines who’ve flown in on a C-12 turboprop from Air Station Miramar in California. As they deplane, creaky from their neck and back issues, I notice they all have their limbs, eyes, and other essential parts. They’ve all been shot or blown up or both. Everyone has Purple Hearts. But they seem healthy enough. Except for one who periodically uses a cane, they all walk on their own steam and carry their own bags.
The proud American in me is relieved for them, grateful for their sacrifice, but glad they’re seemingly in one piece. The selfish journalist in me reflects on the harrowing stories of physical ailments that I just heard in the truck, coming to one inevitable conclusion: From a writing standpoint, I got hosed.
I mention this, as tactfully as possible, to Hastings. Doesn’t he think he could’ve managed to bring me out when a few amputees, at least, were coming, just for illustration’s sake? They had one in the lineup, he says, but he dropped out and was replaced by a nonamputee at the last second. Hastings suggests diving deeper, however. Just wait, he says. These Marines, suffering from PTSD, aren’t as in the clear as they look.
Sometimes, the worst injuries are the ones you can’t see.
The warriors are immediately caravanned to Simms HQ. There, they get suited up by the outfitter, which gives WQW all their normally pricey gear at cost (plus some freebie extras): boots, waders, wading staffs, chest-pouches, the works. “You guys got better s—t than me,” grouses Collin, “and I do this for a living.” While waiting for pizzas to arrive for lunch, I make the acquaintance of Joshua Kelly, the Marine I saw tottering with a cane. His commitment to the Corps is second only to his commitment to unfiltered Camels, so he goes outside for a smoke.
Boyish, with a Wisconsin accent, Josh looks fresh out of a Norman Rockwell painting where the girls are pigtailed and the boys are freckled and everyone flirts harmlessly at the soda fountain. Hastings repeatedly razzes the 23-year-old, calling him “The Teenager.” “If it makes you feel younger,” Josh retaliates. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
Josh has packed a full life into his time on earth, and almost saw that time expire. The fix was in early on his becoming a Marine. His dad, whom he just recently met for the first time after getting injured, was a Marine. And his mother was a Marine drill instructor. While some kids grew up watching Sesame Street or Barney, Josh was raised watching Sands of Iwo Jima. A lance corporal with the 2/3 Weapons Company, Josh was an infantry assaultman and part-time tunnel rat because of his size. “My specialty is explosives and breaching and clearing stuff,” he says. Josh pulled tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, only seven months apart.
In Iraq, he didn’t see much contact by the time things were trailing off in 2008. He was shot at twice, and his convoy hit three IEDs. “That’s a joke,” he says. But when he went to Afghanistan in 2009, it was a “whole ’nother world.” His squad alone got hit by 35 IEDs. He once saw 15 IEDs detonated in a single day. The law of averages finally caught up with him. When the blast exploded his Humvee, it came through the floorboard and broke Josh’s right foot, as a chunk of the engine landed on his left ankle. His feet were in the vehicle, his body thrown outside of it. His Oakley glasses were pushed into his face from the dashboard impact. When he took off his Kevlar, the Oakleys came with it, ripping his face into a gusher of blood and dirt. He was blind for the next 24 hours.
The pizza comes, and Josh takes a piece to make the organizers feel good, but won’t eat any. Even after the long trip, he’s not hungry.
The docs told Josh he’d need both feet amputated. For a whole month, he thought he’d be a double amputee. “It doesn’t hit you too hard until you get home and see your family and have to tell them,” he says. Though he hastens to add he knows a lot of amputees from time logged in the Wounded Warrior Battalion. “They’re the greatest people,” he says. “They tend to be in a good mood. You’ve been there, and see that your life can end, so you take advantage of it from that point on.”
But after 15 surgeries, a doctor changed his mind, telling Josh he’d keep his feet, though he’d never walk again. He did just that eight months after he got hit. Then they said he’d need assisted walking for the rest of his life. Now, despite arthritis in his feet, Josh can mostly manage without a cane. So they’re telling him he’ll never run. But why start betting against himself? If he can’t run, he can’t get back into the fight. And he wants back into the fight, especially with the recent news of Osama’s death, which he furtively admits, not wishing to offend the house moms, “gave me wood.”
He thinks he did good over there, and knows that Afghanistan might be hopeless. “But even if somebody’s in the bank holding it up,” he says, “You can save a lot of people if you take care of it then and there. I kind of wanna be that guy.” I ask how much of his wanting to go back is proving to himself that he can. “About 50 percent,” Josh says. He used to think firefights were fun. He still loves hunting, “because the closest thing to shooting at a person is shooting at an animal.” But now he doesn’t know how he’d react to the pandemonium.
“That’s the test, y’know?” says Josh. “I’ve been in that situation before. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get in that situation again. I like to think my training will take over. But you never know. I’ve seen the biggest, toughest guys hiding behind a Humvee when the first shot goes off. If you want to find out what happens, you do it. You go over there. And that’s what I intend on doing.”
After pizza at Simms, the caravan moves on to Cold Stone Creamery, and there’s dinner at the ranch still to come. The warriors joke that they’ll all need to go to a fat farm after their fishing trip. I fall into conversation with Lawrence Salcido. He’s the grand ol’ man of the group at 37, and holding senior rank, as a gunnery sergeant. The others lapse into calling him “Gunny,” though he blanches, insisting that they call him “Sal,” as nobody wears rank around here. (Hastings himself says, “I want them to focus on recovery, not on being nice to some old f—in’ colonel.”)
Unlike Josh, Sal’s had it with the fight. He never considered himself a warmonger, “but if something needed to get done, it needed to get done.” Things changed for him “when I saw this girl I knew get blown up.” Or maybe it was picking up Marine remains off the side of the road. Or maybe the burned kids at Brook Army Medical. “I call them kids,” he says, reproaching himself. “It’s hard for me not to—they’re so young, 19, 20 years old. It’s like man, time to move on, I think.”
When his vehicle was hit by an IED in Afghanistan, Sal only had two weeks to go before coming home from his fifth combat deployment. His turret gunner got blown out of the vehicle. The 50 cal. sailed 100 meters off. Both axles were gone. Sal broke his thoracic vertebrae #4 thru #8, and caught shrapnel in his thigh and the inside of his mouth. He fought for breath, and had an out of body experience, trying to get a message to his wife to tell his three daughters he loved them, to no avail. (An old combat buddy living stateside, he found out later, bolted upright in bed the moment he got hit, saying, “Something is wrong with Sal.”)
Before he was hit, Sal used to tell people that PTSD was a sham, something that afflicted a “weak-minded person.” Now he knows better, and has had to apologize to a lot of people. “I was wrong, because it’s there.” He tells of trying to assume the combat fighting stance in bed, even when his back was broken. “A boom goes off in your head in the middle of the night, you can’t get to sleep,” he says. “Or you have dreams where you’re riding in a Humvee, screaming, ‘Get me out. I’d rather walk.’ Cause people get killed in Humvees. You can just take a soda can and crumple it up, cause that’s what Humvees look like when they get hit by an IED.”
He used to train for marathons, working out like a fiend, running in place in the Afghan dirt. But he hasn’t been able to do anything since getting blown up. At night, he says, “you still feel like you ran a 26-mile marathon and can’t do nothing about it.” After returning home from his last four deployments, he could leave the war behind. But those days are over. His wife says he’s changed. His nights are no longer his own.
He recently had a dream where he sees a man on the street pushing a woman, then beating her up. “Normally,” he says, “I’d go get the guy. But I was like, hey, it’s none of my business.” Then he saw the woman running off, the man pursuing her, and he heard her getting stabbed. And Sal, the man who once asked his Army Ranger father what service he should join that would push him the hardest (his father told him the Marines), the man who is not afraid of much, admits, “I’m afraid. I’m huddled down. I’m not doing anything. I woke up and am pissed off beyond belief for not having the courage to get up and go get that guy. I’m pacing back and forth. My wife says, ‘It was just a dream. You wouldn’t do that in real life. You would smack him around.’ ”
“It’s weird,” Sal says, over the happy clatter of customers getting served Cookie Mintsters and Mud Pie Mojos. “I don’t know what’s broken in me. I don’t know. I can only tell you my dreams.”
The next morning brings the first fishing day. Before hitting the water, the warriors get a casting lesson at Montana State University’s field house. Collin takes the reins, dryly informing them that this is his first time fly fishing, too. He asks how many have seen A River Runs Through It. Everyone has. “Good,” he says, “Forget everything you saw.” This is fly fishing, not rhythmic gymnastics. A shadow-casting Brad Pitt standing on a rock, looping 80 feet of line side to side without his fly ever touching the water, might look really cool. But it has nothing to do with catching fish.
Hastings decides even reporters can be useful on occasion, so I’m assigned to various warriors throughout the week as one of the “volunteer companions,” assisting with gear, taking pictures, giving occasional tips when the actual experts are out of earshot. My first draw is Michael Grimmius, a 22-year-old who looks like a physical trainer. It’s what he intends to be when he gets out of the Marines, which can’t come soon enough for him, having not been able to live near his wife, who is stuck in medical school, for four years.
He’ll be one of the few physical trainers in the business missing part of his triceps, which he lost after someone threw a bag of grenades into an alley in Afghanistan (he also caught shrapnel in the throat). After hearing the bang, Mike took a knee, and thought he’d gotten away clean. Then he felt wet and cold. “Looked down at my arm, and it was dripping blood,” Mike says. “That can’t be good.”
Mike is a natural athlete, so he picks up fly casting quickly. Nearly all of the Marines do. Some pick it up so quickly that their guides move on to teaching them how to play fish by letting a volunteer companion pull on the line and run. Mike’s guide, Steve McGrath, spares me the indignity. “With us as your guides, you won’t have to worry about hooking any fish,” he tells Mike.
WQW likes to ensure success on the first outing as a confidence builder, so they take warriors to promiscuity ponds, places where the fish are dumb and slutty, which this morning happens to be at a spring-fed farm pond called “Ducky’s.” At Ducky’s, everyone puts on their waders, and McGrath gets in his vest, which looks to be covered in fish slime like it might never have been washed. It happens. Fishermen tend to lose track of time. His vest bears a rainbow trout pin his son put there when he was four. “He’s 34 now,” says McGrath.
The three of us aren’t in the water ten minutes before Mike hooks up, and lands his first-ever rainbow trout, a glistening, wriggling 14-incher. I immortalize the moment on film. Mike looks like a kid who just got a pony for Christmas.
I wade back to shore and walk around the pond to check others’ progress. I see Saul Martinez, a double amputee, joyously hobbling around in shorts, chasing his young toddler Ezekiel, his prosthetic metal legs catching glints of sunlight. Saul cycled through the program a few years back and liked it so much that after getting out of the Army, he moved to Bozeman and is now a student at MSU, as well as being WQW’s “wounded warrior adviser.”
He left his legs in Iraq in 2007. His thick forearms are tattooed testaments to the other things he left behind—memorials to all his buddies who didn’t make it out of the smoldering wreckage after the IED attack on their Hummer. He still remembers the smell—that of charred steak—every time he sprays PAM on the barbecue. He stayed in Montana, he says, partly because just look around, partly because of his time spent with the good folks of WQW. “The way they treated me here, it was almost like I was a normal guy,” says Saul. And he looks pretty normal too, except that his prosthetics can’t take the steep bank, which shifts him off-balance. So he sits on the ground, throwing high back casts up into the sky, so as not to get hooked on the grass.
I don’t know who this Ducky is, but his pond is a honey hole. Everywhere, warriors are pulling rainbows and browns and even the occasional brookie. No fish seems to be under 14 inches, and most are plenty bigger. Volunteers aren’t allowed to fish—organizers don’t want them to compete with the warriors. But I’m itching to fetch my 6-weight out of the trunk. Watching all these beautiful trout landed, I’m starting to feel like I was invited to a supermodel orgy, then told to sit in the corner and do a crossword puzzle.
At the far end of the pond, I spy Josh, who has more spinning rod experience than anyone here, catching bass and pike back home. And so he calmly plays fish after fish without ever putting out his Camel. I ask him if his first fly rod-caught fish was better than sex. “Better than sex with a fish, yeah,” he says, beaming.
Standing nearby is Zachary Gillilan, a 21-year-old blond Californian, the wild man of the bunch. His forearm ink says it all: “Insane Infidel,” inscribed in Pashto, so the message wasn’t lost on the Afghans. “It was gonna say ‘F—k Allah,’ ” Zach says. “But that’ll be my next one—figure I’ll get that on my left butt cheek.”
Zach, who’s diagnosed with TBI and PTSD, practices what I can only describe as combat fishing. Though the fish presumably can’t hear him, he taunts them the entire time: Put it in your mouth you dirty whore. . . . We’ll get these Taliban. . . . Trying to hide on the bottom and s—t, okay, where you at? It doesn’t stop him from tying into fish after fish. I want to warn the Marines that fly fishing isn’t often such an easy bounty. But they’re enjoying themselves so much that I don’ t have the heart.
Zach has a fish on—his umpteenth rainbow. His guide, Jack Weiss, moves to net it, but the mulish fish won’t come in. Zach pulls up hard, and then harder still, until the fly slingshots from the trout’s lip and sticks solidly up Jack’s right nostril. Zach looks at Jack for a beat, then without expression, cups his hand around his mouth, yelling to the rest of the pond, “I gotta big one!”
Zach apologizes, offering, “When you’re out with Zach, things go whack,” by way of explanation. Jack looks peeved for a second, but then starts laughing maniacally, as Zach and his catch pose for pictures, with the nymph still up Jack’s nose and blood still dripping down his waders.
After the violence subsides, Zach and I take a seat at the pond’s edge, where he tells me his life story. He too knew he was destined to be a Marine. When he was a toddler, his mother tells him, he used to crowd the television screen, gape-mouthed and mesmerized, telling everyone to shut up whenever “The Few, The Proud, The Marines” commercial came on.
A troubled kid from a broken home, he spent his childhood in a mad swirl of fistfights, run-ins with the law, car accidents, and the like. Most of these Marines are dare-devils and adrenaline junkies—rock-climbers, ultimate fighters. Even the quiet one, Mike, enjoys spearfishing in shark-infested waters at night near his base in Hawaii.
But Zach is in another league, preferring illegal street racing—sometimes against highway patrolmen who don’t understand it’s a game. He once rolled his grandmother’s car 23 times and walked away. Another time, he and his buddy decided to jump his truck off a ramp, which would’ve flipped and crushed them were it not for the tow-rings catching the ground and righting the vehicle. They just laughed, drank some more tequila and Jäger, and drove off into the night. Zach failed to add yet another concussion to the 14 he’s had, only a fraction of which are combat-related. “I’ve lost a lot of brain cells,” Zach confesses. “Sometimes, I feel like a test-bunny for the Lord.” Zach’s currently in the Marines’ Wounded Warrior Battalion, but says he’s being processed out because, as he characterizes the doctor’s opinion, “I’ve been hit in the head too much and have gone retarded.”
Despite his early fascination, Zach almost went to jail instead of the Marines when he took the rap for a group of friends who were accused of breaking into someone’s house. He didn’t do it, he says. But he was a suspect. Once a promising football player who looked destined for a college scholarship, he had become by then a high-school dropout. He figured they had something to lose, he didn’t.
A Marine recruiter acquaintance of his knew he was innocent and went to bat with the judge, earning Zach a reprieve. “When he stood up for me like that,” Zach says, “I saw that sense of brotherhood come from nothing, and I wasn’t even a Marine yet. I could feel the brotherhood. I knew I was going to be a Marine no matter what. Nothing was going to change that.”
He ended up going to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. One day, at the end of a foot patrol, Zach and his best friend, Lance Corporal Richard Penny, were walking near each other. The men were a hundred yards from their base’s entry control point. They could see the flags. Zach looked at his buddy one last time, before the latter stepped on a pressure plate. Zach remembers the blast, but was knocked unconscious and thrown down a hill. “When I came to,” he says, “I looked up the hill to see what was going on. I saw my buddy in many pieces.”
Zach was flown to Germany, where he punched his doctor out, after phasing in and out of consciousness, then coming to and thinking he was still in Afghanistan. Aside from TBI, he has short-term memory loss and lost partial vision in his left eye. He fractured his L-5 disc, has nerve damage in his neck and lower back, and his ankle won’t turn correctly—the docs can’t even say what’s wrong with it. He was on bed rest for months, his equilibrium messed up. Every time he stood, he collapsed to the floor. He no longer has patience for little things, like standing in lines, or civilian complacency. They say Zach has severe PTSD, but he doesn’t think so.
I mean sure, Zach says, “I have flashbacks and nightmares. And almost every night I go to bed, I see his face. And I see him in pieces. I see the blood running down the hill. But to me, that’s not PTSD. It’s just my form of healing and punishment for what I did. It’s the Lord healing me in a very cruel and tough-loving way.” Zach insists it’s his fault that Penny, whom he commemorates in ink down one whole side of his arm, is dead.
Zach says he slacked off at the end of the patrol, that he was fiddling with his drop pouch, and drifted left. Penny, he says, being the Marine that he was, just covered his lane. When Zach talks about this episode over meals or on the water, Hastings and the fishing guides assure him that he cannot and should not blame himself for Penny’s death. But Zach won’t have it.
“Nothing’s gonna take him out of my head,” says Zach, matter of factly. “That’s okay. ’Cause I don’t want to forget. I always wanna remember that day, and the pain I felt. The remorse I felt. And the guilt I have inside of me. I learn from my mistakes. That’s what my mother taught me. It’s my fault that my best friend is dead. I got complacent. He corrected my movement and stepped on the bomb I was supposed to step on.”
I ask Zach if he wishes he had stepped on that bomb instead. “Yeah,” he says. “Every day. I wish every day that Penny was here and I wasn’t. Yes sir. He deserves to be in this life more than me. Not the other way around.”
One morning, guide Collin Brown and I pack into his Xterra with the “TRTBUM” license plates along with one of the wounded warriors, Staff Sergeant Richard Gonzalez. Josh and his guide, Al Gadoury, are in another vehicle, and we’re off to secret water—a spring-creek-fed pond that overspills into the Gallatin up near Big Sky. It’s a place that’s lousy with so many torpedoes—18-25 inch fish—that even Al, who is friends with the owner, is only allowed to fish it one day per year.
Collin’s truck looks like the Fly-Fishing-Mobile. Not only are the dashboard and ceiling stuck with favorite retired flies such as the Sex Dungeon and Butt Monkey. But you have to crook your head to the side on account of all the fly rods he’s racked straight through the cabin. He used to break them down for his girlfriend’s sake, but finally figured she’d better get used to it. When clients ask him if he wants to marry someone who fishes, he tells them, “F—k no! I want a girl who rows!”
In black wraparound shades, with all his tats, from “USMC” on his knuckles to “No Sacrifice” and “No Victory” on successive forearms, 29-year-old Richard Gonzalez looks like he could be a gang-banger. He fought professionally as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter (“I shadow cast,” injects Collin, “talk about tough”). And in Fallujah, where he was a corporal with the 3rd Battalion 1st Marines, he participated in Operation Phantom Fury in November 2004, the heaviest urban campaign U.S. Marines have been in since the Battle of Hue in Vietnam. There, he was known as the “Mad Bomber,” the kind of guy who’d put a satchel charge on an insurgent cadaver and blow a house into history. “I was pretty lethal,” says Richard, without braggadocio. “They’d get me a foothold, and I’d end the whole day for everybody.”
“Here, you’re the Mad Caster,” says Collin.
“I was hoping for Master Baiter,” says Richard.
“I’m going to open a fly shop called Master Bait and Tackle,” shoots back Collin.
“Tackle Master Baiters,” Richard improves.
And so they go on. Collin and Richard’s rapport is deep and immediate. But it doesn’t usually go that way for Richard. He has problems. Serious ones. Books—such as Bing West’s No True Glory—have been written about the battles Richard fought in. Securing Fallujah after it had been turned into an insurgent funhouse was the bloodiest work of the Iraq war—confusing and ferocious house-to-house combat. In one month alone—the month Richard was injured—70 Americans were killed and 609 wounded. “We were in the middle of a platoon-sized element firefight,” says Richard. “I’ve never been in a scarier situation in my life.”
It started out a calm enough morning. Richard remembers eating blackberry jam on a cracker. But when word came that another unit was pinned down, his guys joined the fight. When they arrived, Richard says, “It felt like that street was a mile long. Not only were you fighting insurgents, but they had every street hooked up. They weren’t even hiding IEDs. Wired up right in the open. Bullets flying through the sides of Humvees. S—t’s hitting me in my face. I normally run around with 50 lbs. of C-4, a rocket, and all my gear too. I dropped it all, picked up magazines, loaded up, and me and my gunner, we just continued to fight. Run and gun.”
Richard was shot multiple times, catching a round in the Kevlar, one in his arm, and three in his back. He kept fighting. “We didn’t have a choice. There was nowhere to go,” he says. “There was no getting medevacked. They were throwing grenades at their own guys trying to kill them so we couldn’t get intel.” Even after his injuries, he never left until his deployment ended, two months later. I express awe. “My buddy got four Purple Hearts and a Navy Cross, and he never got sent home,” says Richard. “What’s a guy gotta do to go home these days?” I ask. “Die,” Richard says.
Plenty did. Thirty-three of Richard’s friends, as a matter of fact. Since then, it’s been a rough ride. As a result of head injuries, Richard has memory loss to the point where he sometimes confuses the names of his four children. He gets disoriented. He held a lot of his PTSD in at work, before getting flagged, but “I was destroying s—t at the house. I would throw computers through windows. Put my foot through a big screen TV.” He and his wife, who stuck it out for a good while, he later tells me, got separated shortly before he came to Montana.
He tries to educate his children about triggers. When they open the door and startle him, or see him crying for no apparent reason, he tells them this is about what happened in combat, it’s not their fault. “But PTSD is the disease that keeps on giving, you know?” he says. “I’m not going to say my whole family doesn’t have PTSD just from me.”
This isn’t who he remembers being. “I knew intricate formulas for demolitions,” he says. “And yet I can’t add 2 + 2. This is bulls—t.” He was the guy who stepped up. Who volunteered for everything, much to the chagrin of his men. He used to think he was invincible. “I walked the battlefield like nothing would ever touch me,” he says. “I would conquer everything. And in a split second, I found out that I wasn’t invincible.” Now he needs a “battle-buddy” retriever to turn on the lights during his night terrors, or just to help him leave the house and go to the store sometimes—“my new combat,” he calls it.
To remind himself, because of the memory loss, that he had a passable day, he takes pictures constantly. “My camera became my journal. When I was down, I’d look at my pictures, and see me smiling.” He now does it for other wounded warriors at outings similar to this one. While the guys like to joke there are so many of these programs for injured service members that soon they’ll have “Hoes for Heroes” and “Strippers for Soldiers,” Richard shows up at golf or surf events to take pictures of warriors smiling. Then he’ll give a guy a photo, saying, “Here, use this when you’re sad. You forget that life is valuable.”
Today, at the secret spot, turns out to be a picture-perfect day, the kind Richard will want to revisit often. When he and Josh arrive at the water’s edge, there are speckled submarines everywhere, waiting to feast on their flies. They go to town in a fight-to-the-death fishing derby, at least until Richard gets distracted, grabs a net, and stands in the water trying to catch them the old fashioned way when the action slows.
Collin starts a pellet hatch by throwing a handful of trout pellets directly in the water in front of Richard to get the fish going again. When they kerplunk, Richard jumps and is not amused. “I have hyperstartle reflexes!” he shouts. But Collin busts his chops some more, telling the Mad Bomber, “I don’t think you can catch one on a fly rod. You’re a little nancy.” Richard’s face immediately relaxes, and he goes back to his fun, while Collin mocks him some more for being a big bad Marine that’s afraid to kiss fish. “Everything I’ve kissed in my life, I’ve gotten pregnant,” Richard says.
There are laughs aplenty over lunch. Josh and Richard compare notes on explosives. Imagining how a civilian job interview will look, Josh intones the voice of a prospective boss: “Seems like you like to be around explosives a lot.” Then reverting back to his own voice: “Uhhh, I’m good at blowing things up, and getting blown up.” By day’s end, both Josh and Richard have caught big 20-plus-inch rainbows on a black woolly bugger they learned to tie the night before. Richard retires his fly, which he calls “My Ninja,” to Collin’s dashboard next to the Butt Monkey as a token of his affection, with a promise to visit it often.
At the ranch that night, I arrive for dinner, and Richard is standing alone on the porch, hunched over the railing contemplatively. I expect him to be sailing after his fishing bounty. But he seems to be at the bottom of a hole again. We talk for a long time. He shocks me by telling me that despite all his problems, he wants to get back to the fight. He’s seen what tyranny looks like and enjoys being part of the less than 1 percent of the world who can do something about it. But more important, he misses his brothers, and wants to fulfill his obligations to them.
Combat is hard, he says. It’s no joke, and no matter what you do, you can’t ever really prepare for it. “When it’s real, and your buddy slumps to the ground and you’re fighting next to your dead buddy, life really hits you in the face,” says Richard. “There’s no take-backs. There’s no reset buttons.” He assumes he made it out of the kill zone last time only because he was in a state of shock after being shot. He could feel two angels carry him to relative safety. He’s now afraid of a lot of things, but says he’s not afraid of death. “My obligation,” he says, “is to be there to risk my life, so that sometimes they don’t have to. And we’re all doing it for each other, where there’s so much sacrifice going on it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Those are the kind of people I live my life with.”
There’s another reason he wants to go back. Here, he had to get rid of his two-story house, because over there he had a lot of firefights on stairs. So his mind could never rest. He heard a noise on the steps, he had to clear the house. “I’m normal over there,” he says. “I fight combat over here, and there is no combat. But every day I live in a threat. I’m looking for that next threat. That next ambush site. But if I go over there, I’m normal, that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
This is the curse of PTSD, he says. You can fix an amputee by giving him a prosthetic leg. It’s trying and tough. He has to learn to walk again. But “how do you get 33 Marine deaths out of your mind, the way they died, and your wounds, and combat, and seeing things you don’t see every day? We try to do our best to hide that. With the loss of a limb, you don’t. You get help. But what about the guy who is hanging by a thread all day long? He feels ashamed to bring it up. People are going to say, that’s a wound? Like, is that really a wound? . . . I live combat almost every day, because the same instincts that protected me are still more alive than ever. I can be in a grocery store and feel like I’m walking down the street in Fallujah. . . . You fight yourself, with mind distortions, paranoia, hypervigilance, depression, guilt. It’s so complex. And it’s your mind, so you can’t ever escape it. I can’t ever put a prosthetic on that.”
All week long, it seems, the warriors seesaw. They get ruddy tans. They catch lots of trout. They find the peace that fishing affords—an absorption that transcends mere relaxation. And then, in off-moments, combat comes back to bite them, and the past seems to bleed into the present. On a non-fishing day bus tour of Yellowstone Park, many seem to pay only passing notice to sightings of “elk!” or “bison!” Instead, they call you over to look at war porn photos on their smart phones, such as of the huge craters left by the IEDs that nearly killed them. They swap stories of near misses—Josh telling of tunnel rat misadventures and being forced to crawl over IEDs that didn’t explode. They clock significant anniversaries. Zach is particularly affected, as today marks exactly one year since his best friend stepped on a bomb.
Often, the memories seem triggered by nothing. After we watch Old Faithful blow, then turn around to head to the gift shop for trinkets, Mike Grimmius says to no one in particular, “Kids are playing soccer with my triceps in Afghanistan right now, sick little bastards.”
In the most cavalier manner, they’ll fall into hair-raising tales. Josh tells of the time in Afghanistan that he convoyed past a man and his 11-year-old son. Shortly after they’d driven by, his unit heard a loud boom. They drove back to see what happened. The boy was standing over his dead father, bawling. “There wasn’t much of him left,” says Josh. “When we walked up, we just started laughing. I shouldn’t have. The kid was crying hysterically, but his father was trying to plant an IED for our return. His father had just been killed in front of him, and he was in pieces. Of all the things that affected me in Afghanistan, this one affects me most. But we were the ones he was trying to kill. Him, or us.”
On the last day, I fish the Madison River on a drift boat with 28-year-old Eric Holkeboer. Our trout-bum guide, Jesse LeNeve, apologizes for his wreck of a truck, the hood of which is bungeed shut as the result of a deer that caved his headlight in. He eats the breakfast of champions—Fritos and Fig Newtons—generously asking if we want any.
The weather’s spotty, with occasional light drizzle, and water temps are cold. The riverside Buffaloberry has yet to even bloom. But it’s good to be out anyway, unsheathing my fly rod, violating the volunteer’s fishing ban with clearance from Hastings. “This is a wounded warriors program, not a wounded writers program,” protested one board member. Obviously, he’s seen me fish.
Eric, my warrior-o’-the-day, seems less like a Marine, more like the kind of fleece-covered Zen-master you’d meet at a climbing wall at REI. He loves the outdoors, bouldering whenever he can. Even as a kid, he’d squirrel hunt and run around the woods in Michigan, fashioning zip-lines with his brother as they’d miscalculate tree-branch weights and angles, pancaking in the yard. He has a subtle, self-deprecating sense of humor, often punctuated by a tepid chuckle, one that’s not quite convinced of itself, as though he’s trying to laugh himself out of the unpleasant reality he’s just related. When I ask him what he’s doing since getting out of the Marines in January, he says, “Just growing a beard.”
Like the others, he has his Purple Heart story—a mortar attack on a roof in Iraq. He tried to pick up his fallen buddy, but his hand wouldn’t work, his tibia shattered, and he caught shrapnel throughout his arms and legs. They’re now healed—at least enough to fish. But like the others, he sometimes misses the very thing that injured him.
“Most people in combat kind of want to find that rush again,” Eric says. “Because when you come back, after the initial shock of a safe civilian life where you don’t have to worry about stuff on the road, everything just seems pretty boring. Waking up. Brushing your teeth. Eating breakfast. There’s no pandemonium. It’s harder to get excited about things.”
But Eric’s not interested in sharing war stories. He pretty much just wants to fly fish. Which he does rather well for having only tried it a few times in his life. Jesse shoves off and rows us downriver. Within several minutes, Eric ties into a rainbow, a spunky 12-incher that causes him to chuckle. When we beach the drift boat on a gravel bar, floating deep nymphs through a bucket that Jesse swears by, Eric scores another rainbow like an old pro. This is no Ducky’s turkey-shoot here—it’s the real deal.
By the time he picks up a whitefish, which most anglers have no use for, Eric chuckles, “Oh, I like whitefish—they fight harder than most trout.” I now realize that the board is showing 3-0 in Eric’s favor. Though I like Eric a lot, I’m starting to hate him. Just then, I notice the boat filling up with water, which I mention to Jesse. “The plug’s out!” Jesse yells, hurriedly locating it in a swelling puddle, then screwing it in. “The reporter kicked the plug! He’s trying to drown the boat!”
I’m not above such tactics, of course, especially when I’m getting outfished by a rookie—and one that’s been shot up at that. But the plug would be impossible to kick out if it had been pushed in all the way. I could argue the point with Jesse, but as our rower, he might not set me up on any fish, thus compounding my humiliation. Thirty minutes later, I finally tie into a fat rainbow—a 15-incher, though since there’s no ruler on board, we’ll call him 17. He leaps four times before I get him to Jesse’s net.
“Oooh!” says Eric, “Big fish of the day!” I appreciate his graciousness, until he adds, “Does this mean you’re going to start trying now?” Little do we know, that’s the last fish either of us will see this afternoon. The fishing gods aren’t smiling on anyone, by the looks of it, the river turning into a mostly abandoned graveyard by around 3 p.m. It’s still pretty, though I can’t detail specific rock formations or flora or fauna because I tend not to look at scenery when I fish, ever intent on the next hook-up even on fruitless days.
But with plenty of float left, I notice Eric takes a seat, puts up his rod, and, as Collin predicted, just sits back and watches. He drinks in Montana and the Madison, looking something like content. He’ll probably try to re-up with the Marines, this time in some counterintelligence function. His test scores are pretty high. But for now he just wants to grab a bivy sack and camp out in places like this one. People ask him what he wants to be when he grows up. Eric chuckles, then tells them, “I just want to be older, I guess.”
The farewell dinner that evening has a last-day-of-summer-camp feel. Everybody has the bronzed hue of time spent on the water. Stories from just three days ago are told as if they were ancient history. Nobody wants to leave, with Josh going so far as to suggest surrounding the airport with anti-aircraft guns to keep the plane from picking them up.
Colonel Hastings asks if anyone wants to say a few words. One by one, the grateful Marines get up to thank Warriors and Quiet Waters and say their piece. Zach Gillilan, who has horrified his dinner table all night with talk of rolling cars and other nine-lives experiences, is muted and humble, saying, “I’ll try to keep it short, I’m not much of a speaker, and I forget a lot of stuff.” Zach says that for the past year he hasn’t been able to sleep at all—“maybe 30, 40 minutes a night, off and on. . . . And being here was the best time of my life. The first time I got into that bed, I slept like four hours. . . . No mental health doctor, no doctor in the hospital, has helped me as much as you guys have helped me. I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Josh Kelly, leaning on his cane, his damaged feet aching from that afternoon’s wading, gets up and thunders, “I may look like I’m 12 years old. But I’ve been a lot of places in the world. . . . I’ve been places where people have called me a baby killer. And I’ve been places where people have put me down. . . . And there’s not many places in America where you’ll see the support that you guys are giving us. . . . Excuse my language, but it just makes you f—g proud to be an American. And I absolutely love it. As soon as I get back, I’m looking for f—g land here. . . . We’ve been through the darkest times of our lives in the recent past. There’s no sugar coatin’ it. We all went through s—t, and seen s—t, and that’s the way it goes. That’s our sacrifice to you. I love it. I love the fact that while you guys are sitting here at home, I was on the walls, guarding America. That makes me proud. And I can’t say enough, how much it affects my heart, that there’s actually still places in America where people truly do care.”
When Richard Gonzalez gets up, he warns that this “might be like a nosedive when I’m talking, because of my anxiety.” He says he could never call himself a fisherman, “because I don’t catch fish, and the ones I catch are illegal.” He admits he didn’t know what half of his gear was for, and “didn’t understand why we had to get such expensive gear to stand in water when I could just do that with what I’m wearing right now.”
But under Collin Brown’s care, he caught six fish his first day and nabbed 17 at the secret pond. Then he picked up 10 more that very afternoon at DePuy Spring Creek. He counted his fish up before dinner and realized they came to 33. Richard begins choking up: “The last time I ever experienced that number was my last deployment, where I lost 33 Marines. Ever since then, the number 33 has been ingrained in me. But today, I can say that that number, for the first time, is a positive.”
Having made a nuisance of myself all week, I am asked by Hastings if I’d like to say anything. I would not. Not after Zach and Richard and Josh and the rest of the warriors. Even if I knew what to say, I probably couldn’t get it out. Instead, when the party breaks up, we fishermen do what all committed fishermen do when they’ve been fishing for a week: make more plans to fish.
Josh Kelly went to high school in Aberdeen, Maryland, a place he still visits. It’s not far from where I fish the hickory shad run each spring. I tell him about Deer Creek, off the Susquehanna River. He knows it, but has never fished for shad there. Screw trout, I tell him, and their fussiness and selective taste and delicate requirements for the size #22 midge presented with a drag-free drift on the fine china.
Let’s go swing some gaudy day-glo streamers at these silvery, muscular saltwater bullets who visit for only a short time. They will smack our flies hard, running and leaping and otherwise earning their stripes as the poor man’s tarpon. Josh’s eyes light up with the fish lust of the new fly rod convert. “I would like that,” he says. And we make loose plans.
Who knows if he will make it to my home waters, or in the right season. By then he might be able to run again, and maybe he’ll get his wish and go back into the fight. For selfish reasons, I hope he doesn’t. I hope he’ll come fishing with me. I’ll take him to my favorite run, where the spawners come in so thick you can see them swimming between your legs. The place where, when fishermen walking by on the high trail yell down and ask if I’m catching anything, I lie and say, “Nahhh. Just a few perch.” It’s a place where he is always welcome, one where if his feet act up, and he needs it, no one will even notice the difference between a cane and a wading staff. And depending on how competitive I feel, I might let him stand in my money spot, so he can nail hickory after hickory, playing them in until his arms hurt.
We’ll see about that last part. But I probably will. It’s the least he is due. A very small favor, in return for his impossibly large one.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Fly Fishing with Darth Vader.
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