My first exposure to Warriors & Quiet Waters (WQW) was about five years after I was medically retired from the Army. Selfless service to our nation was my top priority for 22 years, but the physical and cognitive wounds became too much to push through or hide. The simple truth was that I was no longer a top performer, so I was cut from the team. That was incredibly hard.
Like many veterans in similar circumstances, trying to figure out what came next was even harder. After retirement, as if on script, came the isolation. The post-traumatic stress soon became untenable. Thankfully, my strong, intelligent, and supportive wife helped me gain access to the right resources, and I eventually sought out therapy and a small support network of fellow veterans.
Retiring on the Carolina coast made it easy for me to reconnect with fishing, something I'd loved when growing up in western Michigan. After learning about it from friends, my wife initially applied to WQW for me because she knew I wouldn't.
My first experience at WQW was impactful. Although it took a while to fully sink in, I realized how much of the world around me I had been missing. I may have been doing some of the right things to get my life back on track, but that meant little if I wasn't doing those things right. Fly fishing taught me how to 'be where my feet are,' or, as most people say, 'be in the moment.' To be done right, fly fishing demands focus, discipline, and mindfulness. But my reward is soul-cleansing quietness. When I am on the river with a fly rod in my hand, the rest of the world literally — and I mean literally — stops existing, even to me.
I experienced intense personal growth from that first visit to the Quiet Waters Ranch. I also gained a great love, deep respect, and unbridled enthusiasm for fly fishing. Critical things missing from my life began to revisit me because of my passion for fishing and being outdoors.
Almost two years ago, my wife and I moved back to our home state of Michigan after 30 years away to be closer to family. Leaving what I thought would be my last and forever home was not easy. WQW was there for me — to guide me into the next chapter in my life by inviting me on a Conservation Experience, which rekindled my lifelong calling of service to something more than myself. I returned home inspired to seek out similar opportunities but with limited success. I did find fulfillment by maintaining meaningful relationships through fly fishing. I continued to travel to the western Carolina mountains to fish with friends and host friends here in Michigan to fly fish for salmon and steelhead. When times were lean, I have even resorted to putting a fly rod in the hands of my walleye fishing neighbor. He is still a "Walleye Guy" but now has a fly-tying bench in his basement.
One afternoon last May, I received an unexpected phone call that set me back on course. It was Jesse LeNeve, WQW's Fishing Operations Manager. He informed me that there was an immediate opening on the Smith River FX that needed filling. "Dutch, can you fly to Montana tomorrow to go fishing?" I left my lawnmower in the middle of the yard and started packing. I use the excuse of the short notice for my ignorance, but I had no idea what I was getting into with the Smith River.
I have been very fortunate to have caught many fish and been fortunate enough to have caught large fish. I have even had times when I have caught many large fish. That is to say, I feel very blessed that fishing, for me, isn't just about the fish. I caught some nice fish on that trip but remember very little about the fishing. I can only describe it like the initial FX was grade school, and the Smith River was graduate level. It was probably two months before I could speak articulately about it without choking back tears. On the Smith River, I decided that service to other veterans would be the most impactful use of my time and energy, not to mention the most fulfilling. Fast forward to July, and I am incredibly lucky enough to be invited back to the Quiet Waters Ranch in a volunteer position supporting the Hunt for a Purpose Boot Camp. It was hard work; it was hot, and I got sunburned, rained on, and bug bitten. Nothing was about me. I supported the Warriors, the mission, and the organization, and I loved every minute of it. It was almost exactly what I wanted it to be; I only wanted to give more.
It's fairly common when meeting people to ask about their profession. For the past ten years or so, I have been a retired Army Officer. My profession now is a Fisherman. No, I'm not a professional; I don't get paid for it, and I don't do it for a living. It occupies most of the time, thought, energy, and money.
I may have accomplished what I thought was unattainable — redefining myself after service. What I was before was all I ever wanted to be, and it was so important to me that I couldn't let it go.