Fishing Away Stress
Innovative NWF affiliate program gives war-weary soldiers a taste of conservation and a chance to connect with the outdoors
A FEISTY RAINBOW TROUT snatches Sergeant First Class Stephen Davis’ hook and heads for the other side of the small lake. “You’re going to have to earn him,” a fellow soldier says as Davis begins sparring with the fish on a warm fall day in central Oregon.
No problem. This is the kind of fight Davis looks forward to after more than 18 years in the infantry, including one tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. “It’s been a rough road being deployed and then going through surgeries,” says Davis, who sustained neck injuries in Afghanistan. “This is a chance to get out, decompress and get away from the grind.”
That’s exactly what the River Ambassador Program is all about. “We want to thank these soldiers for their service, teach them about angling and give them a coping mechanism for getting back into civilian life,” says Army veteran Russell Bassett, cofounder of the program and executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, an NWF affiliate. “And we want to encourage a conservation ethic.”
Navy veteran and program cofounder Chad Brown discovered angling during his own battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in the first Gulf War and Somalia. A friend put a fishing rod in his hand at a lake near Portland, Oregon. “I hooked a salmon after my first or second cast,” Brown says. “Fishing became my medicine.”
Brown approached Bassett with the River Ambassador idea about two years ago. They connected with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, where soldiers receive medical treatment and are evaluated for returning to duty or retirement.
Eighteen veterans signed up for the River Ambassador’s inaugural three-day outing on the Bitter Brush Ranch near Madras, Oregon, last September. The wounded warriors learned the best places to catch fish, how to identify insects and their life cycle as well as threats to wild fish, such as dams. Volunteer guides, most of them members of Northwest Steelheaders, taught the veterans to fish with both flies and plastic lures and took them out on the Deschutes River. Each soldier received a complete set of fishing gear, thanks to donations of equipment and money from businesses and individuals, including NWF members. Two such workshops a year are planned, though sustaining the program depends upon future donations, including rods and reels.
The program “engages an important constituency that is sometimes overlooked by conservation organizations,” says NWF’s Pacific Region Associate Director Les Welsh.
Captain David Raines, Charlie Company commander for the Warrior Transition Battalion, says River Ambassador is the sort of welcome home the troops need. About 40 percent of soldiers come back from deployment with PTSD, he says. “But I think something like 80 percent have some sort of adjustment issues. Fishing is that intangible relaxation and healing process.”
Equally important is that these soldiers will share their love of fishing and the outdoors with their children. “It’s like a force multiplier, to use a military term,” Raines says.
Stephen Davis is proof. “Fishing is going to become a big part of my retirement,” he says as he lands his third fish of the morning. “I have a disabled son. Hopefully I’ll be able to get him out and teach him to fish. He definitely sacrificed for me. Time for me to give back.”
Healing the Wounded
The Northwest Steelheaders’ River Ambassador Program is one way NWF state affiliates are helping veterans experience the healing power of nature. To support this program, go to www.nwsteelheaders.org. To find out more about your NWF state affiliate, go to www.nwf.org/affiliates.
Writer Ken Olsen covers environmental issues from Portland, Oregon.
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