Friday, July 20, 2018

Turning Tides, Healing Waters

Just before this past Christmas I was at a fishing event in Boston and met Joe Cresta, Program Lead of the Saugus, MA and Bedford, MA Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) programs.PHWFF is an organization I had wanted to get involved with for a while. Like everything, juggling time to get involved with another program had been holding me back. Talking with Joe that night and hearing stories of injured and disabled veterans making the transition back to civilian life and what PHWFF does to assist them made me realize it was time to make time.

I never served but in my previous vocation I had the privilege and honor of training and working with several elements of the combined services. They all hold a special place in my heart not only for their service to this country and the sacrifices they and their families make, but also for the code that exists between them. Tying a few flies and spending some time with veterans and fly rods is the least I can do for what they have done for the rest of us.

Through Joe I learned about the inaugural PHWFF Narragansett Bay Stars and Stripers fishing event scheduled for this summer and he put me in touch with the organizer, Capt. Keith Tanner. I signed on to provide some flies for the participants and to be there to help in any way I could.

The event was a couple of weeks ago based out of Allen Harbor Marina in North Kingstown, RI. I drove down the night before and as I cranked the tunes and let the work week roll off my mind I thought about the PHWFF mission statement:

“Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.”

There is a phrase, or to stay current, a hashtag I see used in social media all the time: #flyfishingsaveslives. I’m not sure it’s usage is always literal but in my own experience I know it has grounded me when I thought I was lost. It's been there to look forward to when I've had to get through a bad stretch of life. It's brought me peace, chaos, joy, frustration, gratitude and aggravation,  sometimes all within a few seconds of each other. More than anything, it's given me time. Time on my own where I can clear my head and really think about life without distraction. Time shared with old friends and time meeting new ones. All of this has left me with an understanding that there is something received in the catch and something let go in the release. What those things are, that's up to the angler. Fly fishing may or may not save lives but I've learned that somewhere in it, it can help to make life better. That's what I hoped the participants in the event the next day would find. 

The next morning greeted us with near perfect conditions. After gear was rigged, participants were checked in and breakfast was served, Capt. Keith assembled the entire group for a quick briefing on the schedule of the day and the playing of the National Anthem. Standing in front of the flag with a group of people who have given so much of themselves to defend it was humbling.

Anglers were paired up and assigned to their boats and I watched the faces of everyone as the first boats went out. Some were experienced and had their game faces on, some had that excited but unsure look you see in the line at a roller coaster, but smiles were everywhere.

Keith had told me a few days prior that one of the special guests of the day, USMC Lt. Col. Mike Zacchea would be fishing on his boat. I had done a little research on the Colonel.  I jumped at the chance to crew for Keith. The Colonel had brought his son, Colin, and Keith had brought his son Henry so the game plan was for Keith to fish the two boys with spinning gear and I'd help the Colonel on the fly rod.

This is about fishing with new friends so I'm not going to even try to detail the Colonel's service to our country or to our veterans but I will throw a few things in here. He's a third generation Marine, had deployments to Haiti, Somalia and Iraq, received two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart and Iraq's Order of the Lion of Babylon, was tasked with training and leading the first Iraqi Army battalion trained by the US and was deep in the middle of the Battle of Fallujah and while there was nearly blown up when an RPG exploded just a few feet away from him. Among many other things, the Colonel now advocates for veterans as the Executive Director of the US Veterans Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the SBA's Advisory Committee on Veterans Affairs and is the Director of the Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at UConn. He's also a published author and I recommend his book, The Ragged Edge: A US Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army 5th Battalion.

Keith had some intel on a spot off Newport so we made the run down Narragansett Bay from Allen Harbor. Pulling up to the spot I had a good feeling. I set the anchor and Keith watched the fish finder. We had a lot of bait and were marking fish in forty feet of water. Keith got the boys going on the spinning rods with jigs and I did my best to give the Colonel a casting lesson. Casting a fly rod takes a while to learn. I could sense his frustration in the beginning but the Colonel, having lived a mission-oriented life was getting it faster than most I've coached. I threw a wrench in his progress when Keith and I decided to put a quick-sink leader on to get the fly down deeper. Marines overcome and adapt, he was doing ok with it after a few casts. While he made casts I coached him up a bit and talked about fishing. Knowing a little about what this man has accomplished in his life and been through I felt somewhat awkward trying to explain that he needed to pause a little longer on his backcast or redirecting how he held the line as he stripped it. But the Colonel was very gracious and listened to what I said and would ask a question now and then so as the morning went on that awkward feeling went away.

About an hour into it Colin hooked into what we all hoped was a striped bass on the jig. It turned out to be a dogfish but it didn't matter, the smile on that kid's face was all that was needed.
Col. Zacchea, Colin "Sharkboy" Zacchea, Capt. Keith Tanner

A few minutes later Colin went tight again, this time with a fluke.

I watched the Colonel with Colin. The love that pours out of this man for his son is palpable.  The day wasn't just about introducing the Colonel to fly fishing, it was about time between father and son.
The Colonel and Colin
With two "fish" in the boat and time starting to run out Keith pointed us back toward a spot near the marina where we could finish out the morning before heading back in for lunch. It was here, while the Colonel continued to cast, that I stepped up to the edge and began asking him questions about his transition back to the world, his injuries, PTSD, TBI and his struggles and frustration with the VA system. We shared some personal stories, found some common ground and I think if time had allowed, could have wound up talking all day.

We didn't have much luck fishing-wise in this spot either. I made a few casts and pinned a small bluefish and Keith threw the fly for a few and was bitten off by what we assume was another blue. Just shy of noon we headed back in to meet up with the other boats for lunch and closing remarks from a few guests.

Getting back to the marina we learned that everyone else had experienced the same thing. Most had marked fish but they were really too deep to get to with fly gear. Following lunch and awaiting presentations I made my way back to the Colonel to share the photo's I had taken and listened to him talking with another Marine who had been in Fallujah.  Turns out this other Marine, Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers is also the President and CEO of PHWFF and is practically family. He grew up in Maine a short distance from where I was raised and just happened to go to high school and college with my brother-in-law. Small world.

As I listened to them talk about being in the same firefights, about being wounded and the things they had done for those fighting beside them and vice-versa, I had chills. I mentioned the "code" that exists between warriors. Listening to these two Marines talk and watching their faces I was reminded of a line from the character "Hoot" in the movie Blackhawk Down.

"They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is."

It was a powerful moment that brought the day into focus and was reinforced by the closing comments made by Keith, PHWFF New England Regional Coordinator George Draper, Lt. Col. Zacchea and Col. Desgrosseilliers.
We didn't get the Colonel on a fish that day but I hope that in the two his son caught he received something, a memory or a shared moment, and in their release was able to let something else go.

With the Colonel photo: Capt. Keith Tanner
I'll be back for next year's event and I hope the Colonel will as well so that we can continue what we started.
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South River, MA
20 July 2018

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