By MaryTherese GriffinNovember 4, 2019
Retired Soldier uses fishing to Recover and Overcome
By MaryTherese Griffin, U.S. Army Warrior Care and Transition
ARLINGTON, Va. - This is a story about fishing, war and recovery. Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Caldwell fished all his life. He recently realized poet Henry David Thoreau was right when he said, "Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it's not the fish they are after." After serving in the Army for 12 years and seeing the action he did, Caldwell found fishing to be a life-saving healer.
Caldwell joined the Army for travel and adventure. He had more than his share of it pretty fast. His first deployment in October 1993 to Somalia threw him into the now infamous Black Hawk Down incident as he and his 10th Mountain Division unit were called in to secure the area after it happened. Caldwell and his team were deployed for the military intervention in Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy. Shortly thereafter, he was involved in the invasion of Bosnia, where he pulled two tours. All of this before he was 26 years old.
It was in Iraq in December 2003 when the radio operator was traveling in a convoy and sustained an injury from a suicide car bomber.
"When the blast happened, part of the engine block from the vehicle hit me in the head. I had shrapnel wounds all over my lower extremities. Everything was on fire. I was [medically evacuated] to the hospital where I spent 12 hours," Caldwell recalled. "When I got home a month later, I was so nervous. My hands were shaking, I was stuttering, shimmering in my body, headaches... I could not fight through it anymore." When his unit came back to out-process, Caldwell immediately sought help and was subsequently diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I started drinking heavily and that did not help at all and then the medications I was put on was not a good mix. I started breaking down, I was suicidal."
Caldwell now knows no one can recover and overcome alone. He spent years struggling with his issues before he found and got involved with the Army Wounded Warrior Program. "Sue Maloney was my advocate and she mothered me," he says with a chuckle. "She helped me through so many issues and helped me get into events that were crucial to my recovery and she's been there since day one."
Maloney is still steadfast in her support of Caldwell years later and is proud of his progress.
"Ryan has been through a lot. There were times when he might not have made it, but he did. In fact, he is thriving and making a huge difference in others' lives. In the beginning, as his advocate, he didn't know he needed me, but he allowed me to bug him, anyway," said Maloney.
"The AW2 program has been a huge inspiration to me. It saved my life and I want to help save others now. I do that through fishing," says Caldwell.
In 2012, he started a non- profit that offers veterans and active duty military the opportunity to go on fishing trips to find physical and emotional healing through recreation on the scenic waterways of Washington State. To date Ryan, and his team have helped over 1,000 veterans or active military have this experience.
"What fishing does for a person's body, mind, and soul is just an amazing therapeutic value. Some people go to church to find peace and I go to the river. It all started when I received an invite to Montana to fish, through AW2 connections. I went and it changed my life," Caldwell said. "I stopped drinking, got my medications down to the bare minimum and thought I could grow this opportunity and help others." That was the moment he knew Thoreau was right.
"If I can inspire one person to change their life it's worth it. I not only do it for them, but it helps me too."
He shares his message of hope with younger Soldiers who go through trauma.
"They've got to find themselves and everything will be ok if they find their own way, but ask for help. No one recovers and overcomes alone. And try fishing...there's nothing like it!"