This is a Warrior Story written by a Warrior Alum about attending a Fishing Experience in 2017.
“So do you have a Purple Heart?” I was asked on the ride from the airport.
“No,” I replied.
“What is your VA disability rating?”
“I don’t have a VA disability,” answering again, though almost ashamedly.
Thankfully, the conversation ended with the initiation of a different topic between the other passengers on my vehicle, but my mind was still trying to decipher the previous questions and answers. Did I need a Purple Heart to attend this event? Was a high disability rating granted by the Veterans Administration my ticket? I could not recall any of these questions being asked on the Warriors & Quiet Waters application, but perhaps I had missed something. I rode in silence wondering if I was supposed to be here. I wondered what the other five participants would think about me. I quietly prayed that God would guide and empower me for whatever laid ahead.
I grew up fishing. My father took me river fishing for various sunfish species using nightcrawlers, corn, or whatever else he could find on our small, rural Tennessee farm. My first rod and reel was a legendary Zebco 202, but after contracting fish fever, I stepped up to the popular Mitchell 300 and Garcia Conolon rod — what a great combination! It was in my early teens that my uncle began taking me trolling for walleye. Though I appreciated the attention and experience, I am not sure a more boring way to catch a fish has ever been invented, especially for a 13-year-old boy. I learned a great deal from my uncle who was patient in teaching me various knots, lures, and techniques. He also taught me the importance of aquatic conservation and to appreciate the wonderful creation God has made for us all.
Many years passed with some allowing time on the water but many more restricting me to more pertinent endeavors like marriage, family, and a career as a military chaplain. Pastoring civilian churches for 17 years afforded me an adequate foundation for military chaplaincy. I love the Lord Jesus Christ. I love people. I love helping people in need. I love our nation’s military. Therefore, I could not think of a better calling than to be a military chaplain. After joining the Army National Guard in 2004, my unit was called in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom X (2009-2010). I left behind my wife and two daughters to fulfill the Corp’s motto: “Bringing God to Soldiers and Soldiers to God.” Little did I know that ministry in a combat zone would be entirely different than preaching from behind a familiar and safe pulpit each week or moderating monthly church business meetings (though the latter has been very similar to war).
“This is the burn ward, and these are the operating rooms,” said the nurse. “This is the counseling room should you need a private place to counsel individual Service Members during your shift. This is the morgue. Do you need anything from me?”
“No, thank you. I think I’m good right now,” I responded but was not entirely sure what I did or did not need at this point. I had just arrived in-country and was given a tour of the theater hospital at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. For the next several months, I would rotate through as one of the many hospital chaplains as well as perform my duties as the battalion chaplain for over 1,000 Guardsmen deployed with me from Tennessee.
The redeployment layover flight in Germany was unforgettable. It was the first time I smelled the color green in nine months as if green has a smell. Hot sand and the burning sun were replaced by a cool breeze and a welcoming touch of humidity adding to the coolness on my face. I was on my way home — back to Tennessee from the war. Had my time in-country changed me? Had my family changed? Would I be able to continue life as normal? These and a myriad of other questions ran through my mind. I thought back to the ROD’s or the “Roll Out Devotions,” as I liked to call them. I had the wonderful opportunity of preparing and sharing a spiritual devotion and praying with the platoons before each mission, which ran all night. I was not sure how many RODs I had delivered until the operation’s officer approached me during our final week in Iraq and said that our unit had completed over 530 missions — 536 to be exact. I had shared God’s Word of encouragement and prayed for every single mission in-person. I had not missed a single one.
The bus ride from the Gulfport to Camp Shelby took a lifetime. My mind drifted from being reunited with my family to the ministry left behind. I will admit the mission devotions, countless individual counseling sessions, baptisms, sermons, staff briefings, and innumerable hospital visitations had left me exhausted, both physically and mentally. On top of that were the phone calls, hand-written letters, and emails back home. I seized upon every opportunity to speak with my wife and family while deployed. Later, Regina would admit that she could tell my emotions were changing. With each phone call. At the time, I did not think I was stressed, so why did I feel this silent conflict within my spirit? Anxiety wasn't for combat Soldiers. I was trained to eliminate anxiety. How could a man of God have anxiety? A stressed Christian must be someone of little faith, I told myself. God would never allow me to be stressed. These myths had manipulated me to appear stronger than anyone I was counseling. Looking back, I realized the joy of being home had camouflaged the deep-seated wounds I was bringing home with me. Tears filled my eyes, not from the joy of being home but from a fear that I would not be the same person. Deep down, I knew I was not.
The reunion was short-lived. After numerous home-cooked meals, hugs, and “welcome home” greetings, I was back in the office as a full-time support chaplain for the Tennessee Army National Guard. The same issues I had faced in Iraq were quickly filling my calendar back home. Marriage counseling, financial counseling, suicidal ideation counseling, grief counseling, spiritual guidance, sermons, ceremonies, and a host of other chaplain duties permeated every area of my day, and oftentimes my nights and weekends. My energy was slowly draining. As always, my compassionate wife noticed it first. She urged me to slow down, but how could I? So many people depended on me. I could not let them down. I had to answer every phone call, email, and face-to-face need. And one morning, I broke.
I had just pulled out of my driveway to begin the 90-minute commute to Nashville when I began to cry. I could not stop crying. Nothing bad had happened. My marriage and home life were great. Why could I not stop crying? As I drove, images of the burned children I had prayed with Iraq flashed in my mind. Counseling sessions with Soldiers facing infidelity, financial ruin, or spiritual indecision filled my thoughts. The greatest tragedy was knowing that I was dealing with the same workload back home as in wartime and could not escape. Theoretically, I had never left the battlefield — my battlefield. All of the Soldiers I deployed with were back home safe from the enemy’s bullets and IEDs. They had found a refuge from war. I was still in it. My Christian upbringing had taught me about spiritual warfare, but little did I know how true that phrase would be in my own life. No matter where I turned, I could not escape the “care snare” and this would not be the only day that I would cry. It began to be a routine ritual. Many nights, I dreaded going to sleep, because I knew that when I woke up, I would experience the same gamut of emotions all over again.
My nerves were shattered. Hearing someone knock on a door or a cell phone ringing sent my heart rate into overdrive. Most days, I just wanted to stay in bed or go to the office, close the door, and hide from the world. I visited my family doctor and a local VA Outpatient Clinic. Though their concern for my wellbeing was genuine, the pills they prescribed me sent me into a land with no cares, no joy, and — worse — no emotion — whether good or bad. That state of being was unhealthier than taking no medication, so I laid the pills aside. How could I find relief? Would I always be this way? I prayed unremittingly for God to intervene. He did.
Perhaps the only thing that brought a reprieve during my daily episodes of post-traumatic stress was the thought of getting away to a quiet place, preferably around water. I thought of the farm where I was raised and the simplicity of grabbing my fishing pole after school and fishing the pond until supper. Life was so simple then. For a few moments out of the day, I had peace and serenity. Then, one day, the Lord God led me to 1 Thessalonians 4:11, which reads, “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you” (KJV). That was it! I needed quietness in my life. The word study means to “seek, aim, hope, or desire.” Only there would the blessing of peace be found! An internet search for “study to be quiet” turned up a fellow by the name of Izaak Walton and his book “The Complete Angler.” Reading the book, Walton revealed a profound peace in fly fishing. Was it that simple? Could the simple art of fly fishing provide the therapy and healing I so desperately sought? Was this the answer that God has provided to my prayer? I bought and read “The Habit of Rivers” by Ted Leeson, “Trout Bum” by John Gierach, and “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean. My overwhelming bouts with depression began to diminish, but I wanted more.
“What would you like for Christmas, Dad?”
“I would like a fly rod and reel.”
This would be my outlet. I longed for a quiet river to wade and the Caney Fork tailwater was only 25 minutes from my house. Though I knew nothing about casting a fly rod, I yearned to experience the solitude I had read about. More than just catching fish, my goal was emotional healing. Little did I know that God’s intention was spiritual healing that only He could and would provide. The first step was learning that as a caregiver by trade, I cannot fix everyone’s woes. I realized I harbored a great deal of pride and arrogance thinking that I had the answer to all of life’s problems. It was a very humbling experience, but one that I now passionately cherish. Though we praise our Lord for modern medicine, God’s therapy for my healing would not involve pharmaceutical medications, but rather small doses of simplicity mingled with intentional quietness. The river became my hospital. Aloneness became my friend. As Paul Fersen once wrote, “Loneliness is solitude without purpose. Solitude with purpose is pure freedom.”
If I was struggling, were other veterans struggling as well? Had other veterans found out about the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing? Once again, an internet search revealed that countless veterans had found solace in fly fishing. I learned that the whole organization had been formed just for the sole purpose of bringing healing to veterans through the miraculous powers of fly fishing. One such organization was Warriors & Quiet Waters. I read their mission statement and goals and applied as an attendee for one of the WQW Fishing Experiences (FX) for 2017. I waited to see where God would lead me next.
The drive from the airport in Bozeman was filled with sights that I had only read or dreamed about. Growing up in Tennessee, Montana had seemed like a world away and a world all by itself. It was where cowboys had led great cattle drives and where General Custer met his fate. Reading fly fishing literature, it was Montana where the great trout rivers of the United States flowed, and I was here. I could barely take it all in. We arrived at our cabins — our home for six veterans, support staff, and volunteer companions for the next six days. I was part of WQW FX2-17.
The fleeting days were filled with fly fishing from the various platforms: drift boat, lake, and wading. The weather was perfect in my opinion, but, then again, I was so excited to be a part of this therapy that everything was perfect. The evenings afforded each person the opportunity to sit around the communal fire ring and reminisce about war stories, family, sports, or how things ought to be in the world. The meals were sumptuous without any ingredient spared. The hospitality surpassed anything the South could ever hope to offer. Professional fishing guides were provided for each veteran. Their knowledge, skill, and passion for helping veterans exceeded anything I had ever experienced. But perhaps, what had the greatest impact on me as an attendee happened when my volunteer companion, a 77-year-old retired attorney and Vietnam veteran, looked me in the eye and said, “We just want you to know that we and many others care about you.” Tears filled my eyes. I finally realized that I no longer had to bear the burden of doing it all myself. WQW and my fellow veterans were helping me carry my load. That night I shared on the phone with my wife the transformation that had taken place. I thanked my Lord for the journey that He had led me on. I remembered David’s heartfelt praise, “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3). My soul had indeed been restored. A new peaceful energy had permeated my purpose for living and caring for others. Henry David Thoreau aptly wrote, “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that is it not fish they are after.”
Mark, Army National Guard
If stories like Mark's inspire you, please consider donating to support other Warriors during the Give Big Gallatin Valley fundraiser May 6-7, 2021. Your gifts during Give Big will help us outfit each Warrior in 2021 with a Sage Fly Rod and Reel to keep.