Fishing program a safe haven for wounded JBLM veterans
December 6, 2011
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Capt. Marshall Davis recalls life during his recent deployment to Iraq with one word: Indescribable -- at least to anyone who wasn't physically there.
The Idaho Army National Guard construction officer oversaw the movement of concrete barriers and walls, massive storage containers and other equipment out of Victory Base Complex in Baghdad after the inception of Operation New Dawn, a formal transition signifying the end of U.S. military involvement in the country.
But for Davis, the real stress didn't necessarily come from the nine straight months of intense construction work that eventually tore his shoulders apart and sent him to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Warrior Transition Battalion.
It came from constant defenses in a region that became less safe as time went on and forces began to take down the base's blast walls.
"We had many places that were ghost towns; nobody was around and security was very awkward," Davis says. "For quite a long time we had to be hyper-vigilant to kidnappings, to stabbings, to snipers, etcetera, in the outlying areas."
"The stress of living that way for a year is indescribable."
But today, in the cold mist of a foggy Portland, Ore., morning, 7,000 miles and a few months past the trying experience, Davis has lost touch with that stress, at least for a brief time.
Standing on the deck of a 26-foot fishing boat on the waters of the Columbia River, his hands shoved in the pockets of his coat, life has slowed down a bit for the Boise, Idaho, native.
"It allows me to completely and utterly relax," says Davis of the experiences he's had with the Wounded Veterans Fishing Program, a non-profit organization under which civilian volunteers -- also military veterans themselves -- invite Soldiers from JBLM's WTB out on their own boats for a Saturday of fishing.
"I've had three trips now, and they're huge stepping stones for me mentally relaxing and shifting back into civilian life," adds Davis, who has been at the WTB for two months now.
The program, the brainchild of Army veteran Danny Gabriel, seeks to give wounded Soldiers in the process of transitioning to civilian life a time to relax and clear their minds -- to let go of worry.
"By accommodating them with just this little, short period of time that is a eustress environment for them, they're able to adapt and cope with their injuries and disabilities a lot better, I feel," says Gabriel, leaning against the driver's seat of his boat -- four fishing lines submerged in the water -- and waiting for a bite.
Today the catch is sturgeon, one of the oldest families of fish in existence.
And sturgeon fishing on Columbia River, which divides Washington and Oregon, is just one of several other venues the program offers.
Gabriel and the other vets whose help he has enlisted over the past few years have also taken Soldiers fishing for salmon, steelhead and halibut in Port Angeles, Wash.; Longview, Wash.; and across the Puget Sound.
They have taken WTB Soldiers on about 40 trips this year alone and have averaged 25 to 30 in previous years.
"Fishing, I feel, is one of the most relaxing things you can do," says Gabriel, who served in the Army from '79-'82 and severely damaged his right shoulder.
But what hurt him more, perhaps, was the mental damage.
"I still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder," he says, adding that he has used fishing to heal both his physical and emotional scars -- something he tries to bring to the wounded Soldiers.
"What we've learned on how to cope and deal with our disabilities and live with our disabilities -- we feel that we're able to pass this knowledge on, not by talking to them but by actually physically showing them that it can be done," says the Olympia, Wash., native. "It's easier for a Soldier to actually talk to a veteran -- somebody that's walked in their shoes, that's been there, that's experienced some of the things they've done."
Gabriel started his program in late summer of 2007 after helping his daughter's Army boyfriend through the struggles of suicidal thoughts following a deployment to Afghanistan.
The Soldier was involved in an explosion resulting in the deaths of several of his comrades and blamed himself for the incident, Gabriel says.
"I could not see this young man take his life for something he had no control over," he says.
So Gabriel bought a boat and took the Soldier fishing. He took him crabbing, too.
"We did a lot of talking on the boat, and he finally realized that he wasn't responsible for it, and he started getting help through the military and through civilian life," Gabriel says. "I saw that there was a definite need for something like this -- for all of our warriors to be able to go out and enjoy a little bit of free time away from the stressful environment that they're in."
Staff Sgt. Benjamin Reduque, a former tanker and platoon sergeant now assigned to the WTB, is sitting on Gabriel's boat. While he waits for a tug at one of the lines, he and Gabriel discuss some of Reduque's Iraq experiences.
In an instance Reduque recaps the moment one of his platoon's vehicles was destroyed by a land mine.
"We thought we were dead," says the Philippines native.
But today he's very much alive. And Gabriel listens to him intently, his eyes fixed sternly across Reduque's face.
He recalls the attack vividly, with abrupt, gesturing arm waves and sound effects that are almost enough to bring you there with him.
Reduque says he developed severe PTSD from his deployments. But now, he's healing, and the water helps him, he says.
"The environment is quiet, and out on the water you feel something," he says. "And sometimes I have to get time for myself."
A few hundred feet across the river, Maj. Natalie Vines sits in a chair on Army veteran Rex Cuniff's boat, smiling as she takes in a recollection of Cuniff's basic training days.
"It's kind of like the weight's off your shoulders," says Vines, a Plano, Texas, native who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. "You're just kind of out here, just enjoying the peace and quiet, and the events among veterans and your own Soldiers."
"It's camaraderie; it just brings us all together."
There are plenty of boats on the river, all carrying fishermen passionate enough about their sport to have braved the cold December air.
But on these four boats, all gathered quite closely together, it's the beginning of a healing process -- the start to a long road of recovery.
"It was my first chance to not be stressed in a year," Davis says.
"These Soldiers need this mental break. It's huge."