THE SOUND OF the Yellowstone River — loud at first — gurgles and thumps against our drift boat, clunking along the rocky bottom as four of us take turns stepping around gear and finding our places. A soft morning light washes everyone in a buttery warmth as Marine Staff Sergeant Josh Caskey takes the bow, leaning against a fishing brace on the front of the boat. Caskey looks tough, strong, a man of few words. But these days he’s vulnerable and he understands this vulnerability in the unique way soldiers can — not so much as a weakness but as a hurdle.
Taking the oars, our guide, Collin Brown, begins to row. Brown has been guiding fly fishermen for years but it is this time of year, when the Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation brings in a handful of injured soldiers to fish in Montana, that he finds the most rewarding. His face, so animated, so joyful, communicates his love of the land and this opportunity to share the wide open splendor of Montana’s blue ribbon fishing. Brown understands nature’s healing power.
Every fishing expedition the Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation offers matches each wounded warrior with a professional guide and a volunteer companion. On this day, Jo Borowski, an experienced fisher, came down from Kalispell with her husband just so they could be a part of this trip.
Threading line and tying on a stonefly nymph, Brown directs Caskey, “Hit that riffle,” adding, “Remember, make a big mend.”
The scent of the river mixes with sunblock. A sudden summer hatch of pale morning duns comes out. The quick swoosh of Caskey’s line followed by the click and roll of a returning reel form the backdrop for the day. It’s all about fly fishing, the sway of the drift boat, the loll the river and some friendly banter. We’re all careful that Caskey is comfortable, even as Brown jokes about Josh’s “Captain Morgan” stance — one foot balanced on the frame of the boat. Because Caskey, a recently wounded Marine just back from Iraq, his second tour, suffers from multiple injuries, including a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as some other things the doctors are still working on.
“We had a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device drive into our combat outpost and it blew me into a building. I took minor flesh wounds but the concussion ended up turning into a TBI to my cerebellum or the brain stem,” he explains. “They’re still trying to figure it out.”
The side effects of the injuries are intense headaches, nausea, and problems with his balance. “I fall a lot,” he says. “And I have short term memory loss, a lot of dizziness when I get up or when I walk from dark to light.”
He also suffers from severe anxiety and is on a myriad of medications, including painkillers and two types of blood pressure pills. He was also in physical therapy for Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. “I may be getting a pacemaker to stop my nerve pain.”
Moving downriver, Caskey casts, getting the feel of the rod in his hand. He settles into a rhythm, a motion that matches the thrumming licks of waves against the hull of the fiberglass boat. A golden eagle perches on an overhanging branch. Just the heft and presence of the bird catches our attention. How can so much beauty and so much tragedy be contained in one boat?
Soon Caskey’s line is taut.
Brown yells, “Fish on the line! Fish on the line!” He coaches Caskey on how to bring the trout in. And when he does Brown holds the net out and adds, “Fish in the boat! Fish in the boat!”
Gently Brown removes the barbless hook from the rainbow trout’s gaping mouth and releases it back to the river. Caskey beams.
The Warriors arrive at Gallatin Field on a Marine Corps Jet. From left to right are: Alroy Billiman US Army, Joshua Cope US Army, Richard Vattuone US Army National Guard (Calif), Elmer Ugarte USMC, Nathan Handville USMC, Tim Jeffers USMC Photo by Eric Has
Organizationally, the Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation began in January 2007, when retired Colonel Eric Hastings, U.S. Marine Corps, got together with retired doctor Volney Steele to heighten public awareness and actually make things happen. Both men had fished all their lives, and understood the peace and solace of fly fishing. Even as they simultaneously studied the accumulation of a large new generation of wounded warriors, both realized how beneficial fly fishing could be to aid the physical and mental recovery of traumatically injured servicemen and women while keeping the public involved in the outcomes.
“It was like a lot of good ideas, it had a lot of fathers,” Hastings says. “Many folks had the same concerns about post-injury therapy, post-war care of veterans, and this nation’s shameful performance history post-Vietnam. We were determined to help shape some different outcomes. Along with thousands of others, I started thinking about what I could do as a citizen when it was apparent we were going to have significant numbers of traumatically wounded survivors — servicemen saved by vastly improved battlefield logistics and medical care in spite of horrific, normally fatal combat casualties — and ultimately being delivered into deeply flawed and un-ready bureaucracies.”
In 2006 Hastings and his wife took a fly-fishing trip to Canada. “I again felt first-hand how peaceful and restorative fly fishing was and we fantasized about the idea of flying multiple C-130 loads of Wounded Warrior Marines from the new Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Scott Lake, Northern Territories, as a kind of group therapy,” he says. Back home in Montana, he wrote up a staff study — a written definition of a problem, an identification of factors and alternatives, and an analysis of feasible solutions — for ways to bring wounded warriors to Montana. “Then in January 2007, up popped Volney Steele and we managed to distill it to an acceptable and executable set of alternatives. Selling it to the public and further modifying it then became easy. Many people immediately volunteered.”
Comparing Warriors and Quiet Waters to some of the other recreational therapies that are out there (like skiing, surfing and deep-sea fishing) this program takes a small group of six wounded warriors for six days and has someone with them 16 out of 24 hours a day. The foundation rents or gets a large vacation home donated and the soldiers all stay together for the duration. Volunteer “Moms” come in and do the cooking. So there is also an opportunity for the soldiers to connect with each other in a home-like atmosphere far from hospitals and frustrating bureaucracies — as well as to learn to fly fish and tie flies.
“Clinically, the distinctive ethos of fly fishing provides relatively intense psycho-motor activity in peaceful, beautiful settings and is amplified by a conservationist ethic,” Hastings, President and CEO of the Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation, says. “But the sheer volume of loving service casually provided to them causes them to open up to us in ways they wouldn’t during a few days of ball games, surfing or deep-sea fishing. And personally, for me, it’s interesting because as a Marine for 30 years, my ethic was: Let’s find the enemy and kill him — quick. Now, this program’s ethos is all about caring volunteers, restorative physical and mental exercise, conservation principles such as ‘catch and release’ and the peace that results. They not only get it, they embrace it. We have to pry them away from our ‘quiet waters’ to send them home.”
Hastings is a fireplug of a guy, tough and militaristic in his mannerisms and his speech, but once he starts talking about the combat veterans who have gone through Warriors and Quiet Waters, his voice chokes up, thick with emotion.
By the end of fishing season in 2009, the foundation had brought 88 wounded warriors to southwest Montana. Many of those soldiers were missing legs and arms. One was blind, one half-blind. Both of them were double amputees. Yet guides Steve Gamble and Dave Kumlien were able to teach them to catch trout on both wet and dry flies. Hastings says most of the warriors have PTSD to varying degrees, and many have TBIs from either penetrating shrapnel or severe concussion. Their life, in general, consists of hospitals, doctors, physical therapy and boredom. They are rarely off the base and they are getting used to living with various types of prostheses. The week they get to spend on the Yellowstone, Madison or the Gallatin rivers is the polar opposite of everything they’ve done on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan or what they’ve had to endure since their return.
“Since we can’t bring them all to Bozeman, Warriors and Quiet Waters is trying to focus on the time in a soldier’s recovery and life where we can make a significant difference,” Hastings says. “For us, it’s the period between being blown up and being discharged to civilian life, with some level of disability. In the future, when this war is over, we’d like to work with veterans who’ve been discharged. But right now this is the area where we think we can do the most good.”
Hastings is also quick to point out that the program works well because there are almost 300 volunteers who “ … aggressively give their time and expertise, and because of an active board of directors and committees which are peopled with terrific, committed folks possessing superb business acumen, military systems expertise, life experience and the good will to make each and every expedition a success.”
One of those people is Dave Kumlien, director of fishing operations and treasurer of Warriors and Quiet Waters. Kumlien is an experienced outfitter, fishing guide, fly-casting instructor and businessman and is the executive director for Trout Unlimited’s Whirling Disease Foundation. Kumlien got involved when legendary fly fisherman Bud Lilly told him about the program.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this,” Kumlien says. “I’ve never done anything equivalent to the strong impact this program has on these soldiers’ therapy and their recovery. It’s been a great experience to teach them to fish and see them respond to it, as well as to be a part of the support they get when they come to town. This, to me, is a pretty big deal.”
Every volunteer who works with the warriors has a story to tell.
Josh Casky revels in his first cutthroat trout, caught on the Yellowstone with the help of Collin Brown, his personal fishing guide for the trip. Photo by Collin Brown
Kumlien remembered the time he took Sgt. John Carter, to Sixteen Mile Creek for a day of fly fishing. Carter lost a leg and an arm in an explosion and after he got back home he sent Kumlien an email. “He’d been a fisherman before he got hurt, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to fish again. And he said, sitting on the edge of Sixteen Mile felt like he was sitting in heaven … ” Just recalling those words puts a lump in Kumlien’s throat and he takes a minute to collect himself.
Kumlien believes that the act of fly-fishing can make a huge difference in a person.
“There was one guy who lost the use of his arm; he had no control over it. Doctors had requested to amputate his arm,” Kumlien says. “He kept turning them down, hoping he’d regain use of it. After spending the week here fishing he’d regained more control of the use of his hand and arm, casting, reeling. All the stuff he did in the course of fishing ended up helping him more in one week than in the months before he came.”
AS SOON AS THE WOUNDED SOLDIERS land at Gallatin Field airport, they are taken to Simms where they’re outfitted with specially fitted Gortex waders, Vibram-soled boots, a rain jacket, long underwear, a travel bag for their gear, a wool hat and ball caps. Then they’re whisked off to their home away from home. The next day they’re taken to a local pond where they’re given a lesson in fly-fishing along with a 5-weight 9-foot composite fishing rod, a reel, flyline, leaders, flies, a chest pack, and forceps as well as other tools they’ll need on the water.
“While they are here, we also actively encourage them to consider returning to Bozeman upon discharge and enrolling in Montana State University,” Hastings explains. “Because if they come here, there’s already a personal and local veterans’ support system in place for them. MSU has a fantastic ‘Yellow Ribbon Program,’ where any veteran, post-9/11 is treated as a resident of the state. So their G.I. Bill benefit pays all tuition costs. We also have a great MSU veterans assistance center, a great VA Clinic and the Veterans Hospital is only 90 miles away.”
One of the things Steve McGrath, vice president of Warriors and Quiet Waters, observes is that the organization has no political or religious agenda. “Debating national military strategy is not what it’s about,” McGrath says. “In this day and age every country needs a military, but that’s not a topic for discussion. These kids and their recovery are the story. They do everything that’s asked of them and some of them come back horribly injured. The fly fishing is great, but it’s just the start with us. It breaks personal barriers and gives us common ground. But at the end of the day, it’s the time we spend with these guys that matters. They leave here knowing they have a secondary support system and that Americans care about their sacrifices.”
Many of the unsung supports in the volunteer system are the women who cook for the wounded warriors when they’re in Bozeman. Tom O’Connor, secretary of Warriors and Quiet Waters, says he can’t overestimate the quiet, memorable impact that the “Moms” have on these guys.
“The Moms are volunteer women who do all the cooking for these guys while they’re here,” O’Connor says. “They see them every morning for breakfast and in the evening for many meals; and they spend a lot of quality time with them. As a result, the warriors open up in special ways.”
ON THE YELLOWSTONE, we stop for lunch with the yawning expanse of the Absarokas as a backdrop. Caskey looks a bit tired, but he doesn’t say anything. He puts down the rod for a bit, enjoying the pastel blue sky, the water as still as a mirror broken only by the occasional flap of a hawk’s wings as it sails overhead. Soon, he’s back with his usual flair, pulling himself together in stoic silence, then joking around with Brown about getting a really big fish.
“First you just want to catch a fish. Then you want to catch the biggest fish,” Caskey says, smiling because he knows himself a little too well. “But then, you just want to be out here.” He looks off the water to the tall cottonwoods while brittle branches wave like fingers as we pass.
Suddenly his line jerks. The boat fills with excitement. But the hook isn’t set in time and the fly comes up empty. Caskey casts again. Brown rows up the river about 100 yards and changes Caskey’s flies.
Caskey’s been to Iraq twice. To see the world as he sees it: compare the intense tranquility of fly fishing on the Yellowstone, with the jarring barrage of gunfire; or the simple act of tying the right fly with the right knot onto his leader line, with the automatic double check of his buddies’ firearm safety on the battlefield. It’s life across a very full spectrum of experience.
We pass a few snags, get up next to the bank and Caskey continues to cast as Brown keeps one eye on the water and the other on Caskey.
Brown started volunteering his time as a licensed and certified guide as soon as he’d heard about the Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation. “Someone asked me if I’d be interested and I got in contact with Dave Kumlien,” he says. Brown has volunteered with nine different expeditions. “It was a no-brainer for me, as someone who grew up hearing stories about Vietnam veterans and how they just weren’t supported by society when they came home. I believe these wounded warriors have made lasting sacrifices in their lives. The least I could do is to take them fly fishing.”
The first time Brown took out a veteran he was surprised at how young he was. Brown, 27, a high school history teacher when he’s not fishing, realized this guy with PTSD and TBI was the same age as the students he’d been teaching at Bozeman High School.
“I love doing it,” Brown says. “I love watching them realize that life goes on, that there are things out there that aren’t suicide bombs and IEDs. To watch them come back to life and find some peace on the river — there’s nothing like it. If I can help be a part of their recovery I would give up a paycheck anytime. It’s almost a guilty pleasure — we volunteer our time for them, but we get just as much out of it as they do. It’s amazing.”
Caskey mends his line across the clear water when he gets a tug on the line. He keeps his rod up as Brown coaches him gently. Caskey, his concentration total, carefully brings the rainbow trout into the boat as Brown holds out the net. When Brown offers to take the fish off the line, Caskey says he wants to do it. Carefully he removes the small metal hook from the beautiful 12-inch trout and with the tenderness of a mother holds the life of the fish in his hand. He can feel the heart in his large steady palm and slowly bends to dip the trout back into the river. As he watches the fish swim away, something happens to Caskey. His face relaxes. The corners of his mouth lift and a genuine shift in his whole body eases him back into boat.
“This trip to Montana is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Caskey says. “I don’t want it to end.”
Borowski says she feels that way every time she’s on the river. At home, she keeps a photograph of the warriors she’s fished with. “Every time I see those photos I say a little prayer for them,” she says.
For Josh Caskey, it’s not just the fishing, which is fantastic. It’s the people.
“It’s the friends you make here,” he says, his voice hitching in his throat. “There’s more to it than fly fishing. It’s the opposite of war. I’m able to establish friendships with people in this program easier than I usually do.” He stops for a minute and looks out on the Yellowstone in the late afternoon slanting light. “Life is good today.”