By Matt Smythe.
There are an infinite number of lessons that rivers teach us. Respect for nature, others and ourselves; forgiveness, acceptance, patience and the healing power of simply being quiet; attentiveness and seeing beyond the surface; balancing strength of mind and body with strength that comes from empathy; trust, happiness, courage, camaraderie. Rivers flow in every direction, but only know one truth – they take what they are given and still make their own way. This is the truth of our own nature as well.
By 5:00 Friday evening, everyone had checked-in. We gathered in the common area of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) barracks. Twelve combat veterans, at least that many volunteers, some NYSDEC folks, a TV crew from the World Fishing Network and my 9-year old son. Dr. Bob Rock had taken up residence in his usual space behind a tying vise at the end of the table. Others were seated nearby, getting set-up for the evening’s tying session. With a few welcome announcements, some smiles and handshakes and the arrival of pizza, the second-annual Project Healing Waters Salmon River weekend – sponsored by the Fort Drum and Syracuse programs – had officially begun.
Among the veterans there were a few familiar faces from last year’s event, but most were new to the group. New faces are a given. At any point throughout the year, vets are returning to Fort Drum from deployments before returning to their hometowns – mostly in other states – or getting re-assigned to another post. Transience is part of a soldier’s reality. And for a growing number, so is PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or physical disability. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing works to give them something sustainable – something positive – they can carry with them on their journey home, instead of the weight that has followed them back from the war.
Personally, the weekend carried a great deal of significance for me. Having served in the military, the need in my gut to continue to serve is still strong. So, being past my “best-if-used-by-date” for climbing back into my BDU’s and boots, I serve and support these combat vets, as best I can, with the ability and passion I have for fly fishing. This being my second year attending the event, I was excited for the vets, knowing the experience that was in store for them.
The other significant part of the weekend was that my son, Cam, made the trip with me. At 9-years-old, this was the first “real” fishing trip we’d been on together, and I looked forward to him meeting and spending time with the veterans, a few of whom have become close friends of mine. Having the additional, human context of a smile, handshake and time on the water with them would help instill a deeper appreciation for those who sacrifice so much in service of our country—and why his dad considers it so important to volunteer his time in return.
By Sunday afternoon, Cam had spent the entire weekend wadered-up and in the Salmon. Rain, sleet, snow, nasty wind. Dunking several pairs of gloves. Carrying the net. Exploring. Running the banks to cheer on vets that were hooked up. Crossing the river a dozen times with my hand steadying his awkward steps in the heavy current, watching intently as vets and their guides did the same. Learning how to cast a spey rod and catching his first steelhead. Tying flies and snacking on cookies with Dr. Bob in the warm-up tent. And later, spending the evening listening to vets, volunteers and his old man share stories and laughs at the Legion while he burned quarters in an old bowling game. He was a trooper.
Neither he nor I fully understood the lessons that weekend had taught the both of us—until the following weekend when he snatched his sputtering, flailing, panicked younger brother from a side-current in the upper Genesee in Letchworth State Park, who had taken a header and filled his waders while goofing around in belly deep water. Jonah went down and Cam walked the ten-or-so steps to him, stood him up and made sure he was OK, then walked him to the shore, holding his arm the whole way.
Now, I know this is not supposed to be about my son. And it isn’t, really. He now represents something far bigger than himself. Bigger than that weekend. He represents the good that comes from giving-back and the lessons we learn. Whether it’s my grip on his arm, or a guide and veteran, arms crooked making their way across the waist-deep current for another run, we learn as much from these experiences and from these men as they do from us.
As volunteers, as prior service, as family, as friends, we begin to pay more attention to the world around us than to ourselves. We pay attention to the needs of others and celebrate each other. We become selfless and gain the insight of action. We see our sport for what it is and what it means to these men. The value of its peace, of risk and reward, or more accurately, courage and reward - the courage to trust, to try something new, to step away from the mind and it’s battlefield and let the guard down. There is no way Cam would’ve had the fantastic calm and presence of mind to do what he did without the experience of the previous weekend. And I have seen first-hand that same transformation in men hardened and scarred by battle in defense of our freedoms, and the volunteers who spend hours at their side at the vise or in the river.
The river and its sound and current and cold, its fish and the shifting tapestry of its surface and the world it flows through, pushes back the ever-present anchor of previous deployments, death and irrational thoughts. It restores the too-easily tipped balance of our own frail psychology. It brings them back.
It makes my heart ache to even think about how much these men carry and what they let go of for the sake of quiet, normalcy and being as whole as possible – what they let go of to sit at a vise and build a fly from marabou, hackle, chenille and #4 hook or to pick up a fly rod and cast into the churning current for lake run giants, or to hold one of those giants after a gallant fight, grateful, at peace and ecstatic, smiling in complete awe of its perfection as it slips calmly back into the current. I’m honored to help them put down some of that weight.
I’m also honored that my son has gained the calm purpose and confidence that the weekend and all the folks involved have taught him. The understanding that he has a responsibility—that we all have a responsibility—to take care of each other. To make sure our brothers and sisters have their feet under them and get back to easier water.
Matt Smythe decided two years ago that hunting and gathering for his family's table was a far better way to make a living than grinding out a nine-to-five. A veteran and Co-Project Leader for the Canandaigua PHWFF Program in Upstate NY, Matt splits his time between freelance writing work, a recent dive into film projects and spending as many hours as possible in the woods and on the water with his wife and three kids. You can keep up with him through his blog, www.fishingpoet.com.
Photo credit: Grant Taylor, granttaylorphoto.com.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.
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