By Brian Gilman, Colonel, USMC, (Ret.)
According to the Department of Defense (DoD), approximately 200,000 post-9/11 combat Veterans will retire in the coming five years and re-enter civilian society. This cohort of Veterans is unique in that they joined the military during a time of war and served during a time of war for more than two decades. During my time in the Marine Corps, I knew many enlisted Marines, Soldiers, and Airmen who had double-digit deployments to combat.
Many of these Veterans will contend with the same challenges that their peers who left earlier faced: physical wounds, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, isolation. Almost all of them will wrestle in some way with the challenge of remaking themselves in a world that is entirely foreign to them – civilian society. The DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have a phrase for this challenge: transition and reintegration.
My experience as the leader of a Veterans Services Organization is that transition and reintegration are very challenging for many veterans. Recent research backs this up. So why is it so hard? That’s a question I’ve struggled to succinctly answer because it's complicated. An enlisted Soldier I greatly admire recently broke it down in the following simple terms.
All humans have needs. Renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow conceptualized these needs as a hierarchy starting with Physiological Needs (water, food, shelter) at the bottom, progressing through Love and Belonging Needs (friendship, intimacy, connection) to Self-Actualization (identity and a sense of one’s potential and purpose). When you enter the military, you’re essentially issued this hierarchy of needs by the military. Military service demands a near-complete focus on the mission, so the military takes care of these needs for you – including giving you a strong sense of mission and purpose.
When service members leave the military, however, they have to fulfill these needs on their own – often for the first time in their lives. As a result, many transitioning service members struggle in their new environment. Research shows that if a Veteran is struggling with physical wounds or mental health challenges, this process is significantly harder.
Even though the post-9/11 wars are behind us (for now), the arduous process of reentering civilian society is just getting started for so many post-9/11 veterans. For many of these veterans and their families, they have borne seen and unseen wounds of war that they will deal with for the rest of their lives. Our support to them must be no less enduring.
Warriors & Quiet Waters Foundation’s answer to this challenge has always been guiding post-9/11 combat veterans and their loved ones to peace, meaning, and purpose through fly fishing. When Warriors & Quiet Waters Foundation’s (WQW) Founder, Col Eric Hastings, returned home from his combat deployment in Vietnam he struggled with the same invisible wounds of war that so many post-9/11 combat veterans face today. Hastings tells the story of when he came home from war, how he went straight to the water with his fly rod, tied on a fly, and it healed him. Originally designed to enable veterans to cope with tragic physical wounds, mental, and moral trauma, our programs help these Veterans refill the needs at the lower levels of hierarchy: safety, trust, respite, and connection. Through fly fishing, we provide our participants with an experience that simultaneously produces solace and hope.
Last year, as I contemplated the WQW Board’s direction to increase our impact, I immediately recognized the opportunity to do even more for post-9/11 combat veterans. This led to a year-long effort to develop our newest program model: Hunt for Purpose.
When I joined the WQW Team in 2020 and heard Hastings tell this story, it resonated with me because of the parallels I found with my own experiences. Following my combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I always returned to Montana – my geographical fulcrum – and sought solace in Montana’s mountains and streams. In Montana’s iconic mountain ranges I found the silence, respite, and peace I needed to quiet the noise of war I carried home with me and made meaning of my combat experiences overseas. Thinking back on those experiences in nature, the times where I felt most grounded, closest to God, truly connected to who I was at my core, and filled with purpose were the times where I had a bow in my hand, pursuing rocky mountain elk.
My family’s tradition is one of the outdoors – hunting, fishing, and subsisting on wild game. Growing up, our freezers and plates were filled with deer, elk, and trout. Because of this tradition, hunting has always been part of my life. As I got older, the act of hunting moved beyond the practicalities of putting food on the table to a spiritual activity that restores and sustains me to this day. Part of this is because I felt closest to my father while hunting. My dad was an introverted stoic who believed that God gave him two ears and one mouth for a reason. He didn’t talk much and his stoicism governed his relationships, making it hard to really connect with him. This changed, however, when he was hunting. He eagerly shared many stories with me in hunting camp and his joyous gratitude for a life well lived broke through his stoic armor while on the mountain.
As my service in the Marine Corps constrained my opportunities to find solace, connection, challenge, and meaning in the mountains, every opportunity to hunt became even more meaningful to me. Over time, my passion for elk hunting became a source of drive and inspiration to pursue the best version of myself through the process of preparing for and pursuing a hunt.
Archery elk hunting is hard. Being a successful elk hunter requires focus, commitment, perseverance, and preparation. Because I am an avid elk hunter, I rise every day at 4 am to work out, I take care to attend to my family and professional responsibilities so I can have time to hunt, I am mindful and present in the company of my family and friends, and I constantly have a source of hope for the coming season. Elk hunting has become a source of purpose and drive – a pursuit that requires a constant quest for personal growth in every domain of my life.
Research demonstrates that having a sense of purpose in life is critical to well-being, yet many veterans struggle to find purpose in our lives following our military service. Without it, we languish.
Hunt for Purpose is designed to guide post-9/11 combat veterans to a greater sense of clarity around their identity, values, potential, and purpose through archery elk hunting. Elk hunting is not the objective of the program; rather it is the mechanism we’ll use to help our participants achieve clarity of what they believe, who they are, what they can do, and what gives their life meaning. We’ll do this by interweaving a guided-discovery process around the areas of identity, values, potential, and purpose with the process of preparing for and conducting a week-long archery elk hunt. To do this, we’re joining forces with a long-time, Bozeman-based WQW partner – The COMMIT Foundation – who has developed time-tested, evidence-based methods to help veterans find clarity on having a thriving life means.
Hunt for Purpose is a rigorous program that will engage a cohort of participants in three, week-long experiences here in Montana between March and September. The first two in-person touchpoints will focus on education, preparation, and guided discovery on the pillars of a thriving life which include safety, connection, values, identity, potential, and purpose. The program will incorporate elements of holistic wellness throughout the program. We’ll continue to coach participants remotely between all three in-person touchpoints, furthering their education, discovery, and personal growth. The final touchpoint will bring participants back to Montana in September for a week-long archery elk hunt designed to bring together their journey of self-discovery and growth in a one-of-a-kind capstone experience in nature.
The response to Hunt for Purpose from WQW Alumni and the outdoor community has been exceptional. WQW Alumni applications exceeded available openings by a factor of 10. A multitude of respected organizations have signed on as WQW partners, including On Your Own Adventures, Straight Six Archery, OnX, MTN Tough, Sitka, Mystery Ranch, Leupold Optics, Schnee’s, 406 Taxidermy, Outfitter Gear List, Gerber, and Elk 101.
While Hunt for Purpose is a departure from WQW’s core therapeutic recreational activity, fly fishing, it keeps faith with who we are: a veteran services organization that enables post-9/11 combat veterans and their loved ones find peace, meaning, and purpose through meaningful recreational activities in nature. Rest assured, fly fishing will remain the core recreational activity we pursue at WQW. Hunt for Purpose simply provides us with an additional tool we can use to enable post-9/11 veterans to thrive.
The progression of thinking through, planning, and designing Hunt for Purpose ultimately led to a comprehensive process to re-think all of WQW’s future programming. Hunt for Purpose became the seed that grew into the process we’re calling “Program Transformation.” Starting in 2023, all WQW programs will combine a guided discovery process focused on the pillars of a thriving life with fly fishing and other inspirational recreational activities in nature. In addition to providing participants respite, connection, peace, and the other attendant benefits of fly fishing, we’ll use fly fishing to help participants make meaning of the personal discovery and growth they experience in the guided discovery process. It will all start with an enhanced version of our Solo Fishing Experience. We’ll then guide participants through a remote coaching phase, followed by a second in-person experience that serves as a capstone event to cement the personal growth participants experience in the program. Knowing that personal growth has no endpoint, we’re ultimately striving to put our participants on a long-term trajectory of continued growth and resiliency.
WQW exists to enable post-9/11 combat veterans and their loved ones to thrive. We hope you’ll join us through volunteerism, spreading awareness of our mission, and/or financial support.
Warriors First, Always,
Colonel, USMC, (Ret.)