In honor of our 10-year anniversary, we’re interviewing individuals who have been involved with Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation in different capacities, some of whom have been involved since the inception of the Foundation in 2007. Today, we’re interviewing Col Eric Hastings (pictured, right), Co-Founder and Chair Emeritus of Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation, Inc.

To provide some context for our audience, tell me who you are, a little bit about your background, and how you are involved with Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation (WQW).

Memories!  Are they accurate?  Selective?  Are they failing and fading in an aging brain-housing group?   I’m reminded of a comment I made to the intimidating audience of about 900 when my memory of a difficult Beethoven Sonata proved too imperfect during a performance, and I didn’t have the techniques and knowledge to proceed:  “Too many notes,”  I told the audience as I got up from the piano stool and walked off the stage.  (I had borrowed the phrase from the movie “Amadeus”.)  Well…that’s how I feel regarding the thousand incredible blessings I was witness to over the past 10 full years.  I know my heart and soul are full; yet I’m afraid I will leave out something or someone truly important.  That fear is intimidating the hell out of me.  Since I am being interviewed here, please forgive the incessant use of “I”.  It can’t be avoided by virtue of the format.  I am well aware I didn’t build this Foundation alone.  Rest strongly assured:  WQW has NEVER been about ANY individual. WQW has always been about “We” and “Us”—a community of:  (a) Volunteers who organized and built the Foundation, supervised it, executed the mission, kept the vision always in view (even as we refined and clarified the mission and the vision), while always serving and answering the Warriors needs; and (b) the Warriors, their Spouses and Caregivers, and by extension, their Families.

So now, a little bit about just me:  I am a retired Marine Colonel, combat veteran of 3 wars during 34 years of service with numerous deployments, an A-4 and F-8 pilot, former Chief of Staff of Marine Forces for Desert Shield/Desert Storm, husband to Jean and father of 2 active duty Marine sons—Col Chris & LtCol Kelly Hastings, grandfather to 4 grandchildren. I graduated from Montana State and have 3 perfectly useless Masters Degrees. Being a Marine, it took me 4 years to earn a 2-year Master’s Degree in Classical Piano Performance. But then, effectively assaulting a grand piano in front of an audience is not easy. Yet I came to realize that a second career as a “concert pianist” simply wasn’t in the cards. At 52, I had started way too late; and no amount of practice would allow me to gain the facility and effectively compete, no matter how much I loved or was sustained by the music.

What was the reason behind founding Warriors and Quiet Waters?

My wife Jean and I simply knew such care, service and attention was desperately needed.  America prides itself in being ready to go to war, ever since the outbreak of war in 1950 Korea proved to be such an abomination of preparedness.  But sadly, America has NEVER been prepared for the consequences and aftermath of war, from 1776 until now.  And despite the end of the draft, an all-Volunteer Force, a Veterans Affairs Department and trillions of $$ spent in a Department of Defense on readiness, organizing, training and equipping the Force, America was being overwhelmed by totally unexpected survival rates and new-found scientific evidence of intractable wounds. Wounded servicemen and women were surviving combat wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan who never would have survived before—and the state of their bodies and brains was, in a word, horrific to experience or observe. There was a host of scientific and logistical reasons why this very unusual set of circumstances was coming to pass.  As a proximate result, qualified military medical centers and poly-trauma centers were rapidly becoming overwhelmed with patients needing extensive rehabilitation and therapy. In sum: a new “book” was being written, even while the wars were expanding and the injuries were piling up. Based on my service, I knew the hospitals and the Military and the VA simply was not and could not provide all that was needed to help rebuild the resilience inherent in the average soldier, sailor, airman and marine—to provide the proof life is worth living and living well through unconditional love, hope, joy and re-integration to a caring and serving civilian society. And, as a Vietnam veteran, I was obsessed with the necessity to help make society at large aware that they had a responsibility to get and stay involved in helping the injured combat veteran successfully reintegrate in American society, wherever he came from and is living…to personally help rebuild his resilience—not just pay for it through impersonal taxes and an incapable, inflexible, confrontational VA infrastructure.

Why fly fishing? What is it about fly fishing that provides healing?

Fly fishing combined with the ethic of “catch and release” of stunning, wild trout in beautiful, serene, wild settings, away from opportunities to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs is a rare, dare I say perfect, medium—requiring the full engagement of the body and the brain for success. It’s like flying an airplane. The control stick and throttle become extensions of your brain as you learn to “wear” the airplane and make it do what you want it to do, when and where you want to do it. With fly fishing you’ve got to cope with a difficult and constantly changing milieu while placing your fly in a position to be attacked by one of God’s perfectly designed predators—on top of, emerging from, or deeply swimming or drifting within a dynamic and inscrutable medium of water and rocky contour, mimicking seen and unseen “protein”. Do anything unnatural or noisy and the fish won’t come. The circumstances—the “art form”—appear to be impossibly complex, defying understanding with overwhelming factors. Yet, when you do everything right: SURPRISE! “The TUG is the DRUG that feeds and builds the HOPE!” It has been wisely observed: “fly fishing is a constantly repeating series of occasions for hope.” Catch…followed by gentle release…powerfully reinforces the hope to be able to do it again…and again. And you can even quickly and effectively learn to tie up your own “protein” insect when combined with a patient instructor and a batch of natural and beautiful materials gathered from nature to fool wily trout. And Servicemen and women and spouses are nothing if they are not well trained and competitive enough to listen and learn quickly and effectively! Pure joy mixed with realized hope under beautiful, refreshing circumstances! What’s not to love about that equation? Yet you have to do it to understand and appreciate its powerful, resonating impact.

One of the questions that is frequently asked is why did you found an organization for post-9/11 combat vets only?

It was an opportunistic matter of scale. I wanted to impact the newly wounded warrior when he/she was most down and vulnerable—as soon after their injury as was medically sound—to give them the unconditional love and camaraderie that would help heal their souls and prove that life indeed was worth living and that they could learn to cope with their newfound, even if irrevocable, circumstances. Whereas I knew Vietnam-era combat veterans had NOT been welcomed home NOR unconditionally loved, their social circumstances had largely become entrenched over the intervening 26 to 50+ years since service in Vietnam. And a very large and real problem was: how do you verify the truly deserving who has no outward sign of disability such as a missing limb. Stolen valor and Vietnam “wannabes” were and still are poisoning the well. We didn’t have the time or the resources to sort that all out; and I wasn’t willing to try—even though I am a Vietnam combat veteran myself. Korean war and WW II combat veterans were simply out of the question…though we could impact them by encouraging them along with Vietnam combat veterans to volunteer, knowing their life-long experience and perspectives would be invaluable in serving the newest generation of warriors.

Can you describe to us the evolution of the program over the last 10 years? Which changes have made the biggest impact on warriors and experience?

Frankly, the first question deserves a longer answer. The second question is inherently answered within the context of the first. It is all part of the same story. I actually began working on “the problem” in 2006 with my wife Jean. In September, ’06 we took a fly fishing vacation on Scott Lake on the border of Saskatchewan and Northern Territories. The 45+ inch Northern Pike and 36+ inch Lake Trout would come to a fly in an astoundingly beautiful and clean environment, complete with wolves, musk ox, northern lights, the food, the sleep, the camaraderie, the shore lunches and water so pure you just dipped a cup into the lake and drank it! I told Jean: “I wish I could fly a C-130 loaded with wounded Marines in here for a week of this serene, transformative experience.” She agreed! We talked about how we might “do such a thing” on the drive home to Bozeman. When I got home, I wrote a 10-page staff study to develop facts, conceptualize and weigh the alternatives and test the conclusions and the recommendations. Then I let it sit and thought about it some more.

During a Christmas trip to California, I arranged to visit Naval Medical Center San Diego (“Balboa”) with my friend, Eric “Rico” Jones to provide some help. We figuratively forced our way into the attention span of Navy Captain (Ret) Jennifer Town, Head of Comprehensive Combat Casualty Care (“C-4”). Her office was a broom closet and a phone with wires running out the door, down the hallway past the gurneys holding injured warriors behind makeshift curtains because there wasn’t room in wards for all the injured. We took her for coffee and a brief explanation of why, what, and how I wanted to “help” her with her then-virtually non-existent rehabilitation program through a week of fly fishing in Montana where we would provide transportation and accommodations and pay ALL expenses. I asked her:  would she trust me with—would she risk—any of her active duty charges, many profoundly injured? The answer was “Yes.” Such unqualified trust! Later, Capt Town introduced us to a Marine in a darkened room with a penetrating brain injury, double upper leg amputations, half of one hand, missing one eye. My initial thought was:  My God, why did we save you?! But within 5 minutes, Rico, my old assistant Maintenance Officer, had him laughing and talking, even while he rocked back and forth incessantly in his leather helmet and wheelchair! It was at that point I absolutely knew God wanted WQW to “be” and “do”!

It was VERY humbling and sobering to contemplate the extent of personal risk. Somehow, I was not surprised when I returned to Montana and found Dr. Volney Steele, a retired Bozeman Physician and Pathologist, was of the same mind. He knew fly fishing would be useful—would indeed be “therapeutic”!  He sat in my basement with a mug of coffee and a plate of cookies, read my staff study and immediately said: O.K. Where do we go from here? I said:  You e-mail your friends; I’ll e-mail mine. We’ll call for a public meeting at the Bozeman Public Library. We held the meeting. There were alternative ways of organizing to accomplish an agreed upon mission, such as: (a) piggy-backing on the local extant Foundation called “Eagle Mount” with a similar mission involving civilians with disabilities; or (b) becoming a chapter in a rapidly expanding national Foundation that also uses fly fishing as a therapeutic medium. But as questions were asked and answered, those alternatives were rapidly discarded for a variety of reasons. In spite of vocal opposition, Bud Lilly persuasively argued for the use of Professional Guides only—which became a hallmark quality of our Foundation. I said I knew how to start a non-profit (several got up and left at that point referencing this Valley of Flowers with its immense numbers of extant non-profits). I was elected Chairman and we formed a small Board of Directors from initial Volunteers. I submitted the paperwork to the Feds, created a bank account, added $2,000, Jean gave $10,000, a donor gave me another $2,000 and we were up and running with $$ to spend where/when necessary. We got a phenomenal professional boost to our nascent fly fishing program at our second meeting when Dave Kumlien was asked and agreed to join the Board. We wrote and passed by-laws, put some flesh on the bones of a simple, initial “two-event” season of 6 days each, did a little fund-raising, and set about writing a coherent concept of operations and sequence of events for each of two “Fishing Experiences” (FXs)—one during the week of the “Blue Angels in the Big Sky” Airshow, and the other in the fall. Through the efforts of Rico Jones, San Diego (Balboa) provided the Marines, Soldiers and Sailors that comprised the Warriors for the first two FXs. Rico coordinated their movement to and from Bozeman via Marine Corps airlift through the Joint Airlift Command, St. Louis, MO.

Over the next ten seasons we expanded FXs from two to six in 2008 & ’09, seven in ’10 and ’11, eight in ’12 & ’13, nine in ’14 and ’15, ten in ’16, and fourteen in ’17. Meanwhile: (a) WQW grew from an “All Volunteer Force” of Directors, Committee Members, Team Leaders, Assistants, “Moms”, Guides, Companions, Logisticians, and Drivers, (b) to an All Volunteer Force facilitated and supported by a full-time professional team of employees, (c) a fully committed and talented Board of Directors and then a National Advisory Board, (d) with Strategic Plans being developed; (e) a Capital Campaign was successfully developed and swiftly run, (f) an appropriate ranch and home was thoroughly researched, diligently found, purchased and remodeled to be fully ADA-compatible; (g) and countless generous Donors made it possible to enable and support ongoing operations AND procurement. Their level of trust is a story of its own and is truly inspirational. Meanwhile over the years, our hands-on Board of Directors and leaders set about thoroughly planning and then executing each discreet event, developing sequences and matrices and checklists for preparation and participation. FXs ALWAYS came with surprises and changes; but we “adapted and overcame” because we were prepared and flexible with the unexpected. On the surface, FXs appeared seamless, almost effortless therein ensuring the warrior experience was unruffled and relaxing even while the level of activity was intense. Given their military experience and training, the warriors rapidly recognized they need worry about nothing! And after each event, we came together in a “hot wash-up” to thoroughly review the good, bad and ugly of each interwoven part—always keeping our focus on the warrior and his/her experience! As an example, we initially allowed alcohol to be consumed. That rapidly proved to be a profound mistake—and we fearlessly changed the policy. The result was the collective development of an unequaled standard of excellence within a holistic experience based on activities that were feasible, suitable, acceptable, affordable, predictable, reproducible, trustworthy and effective. It was not easy. The process of building and sustaining a dependably high quality program was deeply emotional and transformative in its own right. It was built on mutual respect and total commitment of all involved. Our faith in our activity sustained us as we built the trust of others.

I can’t even remotely begin to credit everyone involved at key points in the evolution and development of WQW along with their contributions over the brim-full 10 years of our existence. I would LOVE to write a full history giving credit where due. Suffice it to say: WE have planted the seed as the sowers; and OTHERS will continue to reap OUR collective harvest. All “…our hearts have been pierced through with life’s sorrowing cry” as we unconditionally and collectively have loved our warriors and their spouses and buddies, bringing them the immensity of joy along with the certainty of hope that is embodied in fly fishing.

As you’ve watched warriors go through the program, what indicators or feedback have signaled to you that this program is successful? Put another way, what does success look like for the program and for warriors?

Last question first: evidence of “success” looks like the honest testimony of warriors of suicide plans and thoughts dashed, discarded and banished through the impact of grace—unmerited and unconditional love, intentionally and lavishly laid upon the warriors, their spouses and their “battle buddies” they themselves have brought to WQW in order to “give back” and spread the word and “wealth” inherent in the “Fishing Experience.” Evidence looks like the countless unsolicited “Thank You” letters received from spouses and parents and caregivers. Evidence looks like the hundreds of individual enduring friendships formed every event from the bonds swiftly developed between guide, companion, warrior and especially “Moms.”  Evidence is readily available in the testimony of virtually every volunteer whose life was equally transformed through the experience of training and then serving “their” warrior. And on…and on! It is impossible to participate in an FX as a servant and not come away with the certain knowledge that you have been a part of transforming both warrior and volunteer lives for the better. Nothing they say or do rings false or trite or forced. The emotions are genuine. And the progress deepens, as we are able to continue to serve the warrior. Feedback and “measurement” also comes in the form of pre- and post-event surveys questioning the circumstances and then specific changes in the warriors’ lives as they make and execute healthy plans and choices for their futures. But never forget: we are dealing with brains and bodies chemically and physically altered potentially forever through the impact of explosions, concussions, penetrations and ever-present seen and unseen injuries. Developing the ability to cope, to rehabilitate ones self, to rebuild resilience becomes a lifelong skill. AND: WQW gives them ALL the tools necessary to carry the activity successfully into their futures. Fly fishing as a deft psychomotor activity refills a draining well and fits the new equation and circumstances to a “T”! Best of all: it doesn’t rely on the addition of booze or drugs. Fly fishing stimulates in all positive ways! Alcohol as a drug of choice becomes one of dependence and destruction of both self and families, irrevocably visiting the destruction of war on families and future generations! Fly fishing is redemptive and builds resilience, joy, confidence and hope.

What is your hope for WQW going into its 11th year?

That we continue to expand our thoughtfully developed new missions, continuing to reach out to the thousands of hurting and even desperately in need combat veterans, their families, their buddies, and parents, children and siblings of KIAs…especially networking effectively and reinforcing the missions of like-minded organizations.

What is your hope for WQW in its 50th year? What is the legacy that you hope to build?

Trust me: we will not run out of a supply of those in need! War will not be banished to a trash heap of history. Yet the purity and ethics of serving others and fly fishing for wild trout in beautiful places will continue with converts from the experience. Hope? I have complete faith in it. If we love God and love each other—how can we fail? As Jesus said: there is no commandment greater than these. And if we obey and continue to serve wounded warriors, their families and their buddies, God is at work and we will build hope together. I love the poem by Emily Dickinson. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. And sweetest in the gale is heard, and sore must be the storm that could abash the little Bird that kept so many warm. I’ve heard it in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea. Yet never in extremity, it asked a crumb of me.” In sum, I hope: “that the tears of the sower” and those of the injured “shall mingle together in joy by and by.”