The night sky was black velvet, stars scattered like diamond chips. I could sense the bear more than see it: Quicker than anything else its size, it was in the tent with me. Grabbing my arm in its mouth, it jerked me around like a child holding a rag doll: violently, rapidly, up and down.
The shaking didn't stop … till I woke up and found the flight attendant tugging on my sleeve, saying, "Please return your seat to its upright position: We're about to land in Jackson Hole."
Since the program began four years ago, Rivers of Recovery has brought about 150 veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq to Wyoming’s Snake River for several days of fly fishing. The purpose? Giving vets who’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder an opportunity to de-stress in a safe environment.
Private donations pay for the trip; the only cost to participants is a few days of their time. To qualify, veterans must have been honorably discharged, diagnosed with PTSD and successfully complete a thorough physical.
Since I met the first two criteria and knew I could pass the third, I contacted Rivers of Recovery, the nonprofit that organizes the trips. I was hoping to go along wearing two hats.
Diagnosed with PTSD in the mid-’80s, long before the affliction became well-known, I still have occasional nightmares. I still jump when I hear sudden, unexpected, loud noises, and I still sit with my back to the wall when I go out to eat. And for a variety of reasons, I still sleep on a mattress on the floor. Lying in a regular bed keeps me so far from what feels safe that I end up just staying awake most of the night.
I would also be wearing my photographer’s hat, trying to capture these men as they stepped out of their lives and into a new experience.
The first night, we just relaxed around the fire at the fishing camp a bit upstream from the Palisades Reservoir, which straddles the Wyoming/Idaho state line. After dinner it was just six old veterans doing what veterans do: sitting around talking, gently probing and trying to figure out whether these other people could be trusted. By the trip’s end, however, I not only knew I could trust these men but came away with the unshakable conviction that they would live in the backcountry of my soul for years to come.
Early the next morning, we were shuttled about 10 miles to the landing, below the Palisades Dam. There we paired off, two vets to a boat, plus an experienced fishing guide who would show us the best nooks and crannies to catch rainbows, cutthroats and browns.
Drifting with the current and alternating riverbanks, we spent our morning casting, watching the strike indicator, reeling in the wet fly and recasting. Never having fly-fished before, I found it a challenge to switch from a standard rod and reel to a 9-foot pole and a spool used only to hold the fishing line — not reel it in and out. But after a few minutes, I was reliably putting the wet fly within a 2-foot circle of where I wanted it to go. Settling into an easy rhythm, I could soak up the scenery around me. And as the boat drifted downstream, my mind drifted back to other rivers in other times and places, where the “excitement” had nothing to do with catching fish.
I also thought about my buddy Rick in the bow of the boat. He was a Marine in Vietnam, but not just a run-of-the-mill, infantry-type Marine. Rick was Recon, that special breed of Marine who would leave the safety of the firebase late at night and venture several hundred feet into the jungle to probe for the enemy.
I've known Rick almost since I arrived in Asheville — he was one of the first people I met when I moved here. As the bonds of our friendship grew, strengthened and deepened, we slowly opened up to each other, sharing hopes, dreams and, yes, fears. Things that people who pass us on the street would have no idea existed in our souls — and would be horrified by if they did know.
As Rick fell into the same rhythm — cast, wait, take in the line — I could see the tension and stress melt off his face like snow melting off the Tetons that lay just beyond the river. As if following the water’s prescription, the current of our conversation swirled, grew animated and quieted down again, only to repeat the pattern.
After eight hours on the water we were back at the boat ramp. Time to tally our catch, load the boat on the trailer and head back to camp. Our camp host, Ken, a Vietnam vet himself, was in charge of the cooking. While he fixed a great dinner of burgers, steaks and salmon, the six of us lit a fire and settled in with coffee.
The conversation Rick and I had begun on the river now expanded to include the other four vets. Amid the growing darkness, the conversation drifted from the calm waters of our home lives, family and friends to the turbulent white water of our time in the service. As one guy spoke about a lost friend, the river of tears flowed. The rest of us nodded in silence, empathizing with his loss as we were reminded yet again that there’s no shame when a warrior weeps. In the ensuing quiet, we silently wrapped our hearts around the vet, letting him know that while we didn’t know his friend, we understood and would gladly “Honor This Man.”
Watching the surrounding faces lit by the campfire, we each knew that all of us were brothers, our common ancestors not fathers and mothers but experiences, hopes and fears.
One by one, we gradually made our way to our tents. I crawled into my sleeping bag, watching the dying embers till I fell asleep and dreamed again. This time, though, it wasn’t about a grizzly invading my space but rather rainbows, cutthroats, browns, five new friends — and a lady waiting for me when I got back to Asheville.
— Photographer and freelance writer Jerry Nelson lives in Asheville.