River of hope: Veterans benefit from fly-fishing in Flaming Gorge
Former Wall Street energy trader Dan Cook was on an around-the-world flyfishing expedition in 2007 when he was struck by a TV news report about the struggles of American veterans. He knew, right then, he had found a new purpose.
"I spend a lot of time in the outdoors and I know it has healing properties that are hard to describe," said the founder of Rivers of Recovery (ROR), a nonprofit that takes groups of six veterans out for three days of fly fishing in Dutch John, Utah. "It’s incredible to see some of these guys come around and really embrace the elements."
Every week during the summer since 2008, the Park City-based organization has contracted Old Moe Guide Service to lead trips through the Flaming Gorge Recreation Area on the Green River. Through these expeditions, Cook hoped to prove that introducing a lifelong pursuit to veterans would ease their transition to civilian life.
"Essentially, our job is to be the pioneer in proving that these therapies work," Cook said. He cited a study stating that the U.S. spends an average of $27,000 on each veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cook said alternative programs like his could save taxpayers money by getting the veterans off costly medicines and treatments. "The day the (Department of Defense) adopts such programs, our goal will be achieved," he said.
The veterans have served in a variety of different conflicts, and though they are generally grouped at random, many call each other "brother." Cook said the mountainous environment reminds some of the terrain in Afghanistan. They will instinctively cower when they step out into the open of a valley floor – where, halfway around the world, they’d be vulnerable to a sniper attack.
"Being out in that environment, it helps folks relate those images to a positive experience, and not the feeling that they need to cover their butts," said former participant J.C. Wicks, who now serves as a ROR advocate.
Wicks was staying at the Khobar Towers housing complex in 1996, when a bomb blast killed 19 American servicemen and wounded hundreds of various nationalities. The images of the hotel’s skeleton stunned news outlets back home. That experience, as well as time served in Kosovo and Afghanistan conflicts, left the Air Force serviceman suffering from PTSD and manic depression.
Realizing firsthand the profound needs of American war veterans, Wicks went to work for the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans in Salt Lake City. But he’s found that it’s not always easy to face the plight of fellow veterans, and he is still often reminded of his own fears.
"It comes and goes," Wicks said of his disabilities. "Working with disabled veterans is really stressful."
Wicks signed up for a trip in August 2008 with DAV coworker Daniel Rios after the organization received a flyer in the mail from ROR. It was the first time he had ever seen a program that involved fly fishing, and he was struck by the effect of the beautiful settings. It’s easy to learn the basics of fly-fishing, Wicks said, so it’s a confidence-builder to catch fish and watch the successes of fellow veterans.
"When the world’s spinning and you need a moment of calm, that’s what it does," he said. "It meant a lot to me."
Wicks returned to ROR with lobbyists from Washington earlier this year, hoping to gain government funding for the privately-funded nonprofit. His devotion to ROR is not unusual, and Cook offers all participants the chance to give back as a volunteer.
Spanish Fork’s James Peterson will be back on the Green River for his third year, and second as a volunteer. Peterson injured his back serving for the Army National Guard in Iraq and struggled to assimilate at home until he found out about ROR from a fellow veteran.
"I was very depressed and thought maybe I’d just get out and just collect disability," he said. "I didn’t know what I would do with my life. It kind of got me out of a rut there."
After his first trip in September 2008, Peterson chose to stay with the National Guard and even accepted a full-time job. Two weeks ago he had a baby, and he said he feels more focused and able to deal with stress these days.
Nothing compares to the therapeutic effect of being around fellow veterans, Wicks and Peterson agreed, and being in a natural setting helped them to open up.
"I’ve done some group counseling at the (Veterans Affairs Hospital) and yeah, it’s OK, but there they have to say, ‘OK, guys, talk,’" Peterson said. "Out there, it just comes out naturally. There was no prying."
Peterson’s progress is typical, Cook said. One former program graduate went home and disassembled all the booby traps around his house.
"It doesn’t feel like therapy," Cook said. "It’s very free-form and organic. We don’t take part in it at all. We teach them something new, and they get positive feedback from the fish."
More information about the program can be found at http://www.riversofrecovery.org. The trips run through the middle of September.
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Gov. Cox announced that the state’s mask mandate in schools would end for the last week of classes. Park City School District officials strongly recommended that students continue to wear masks. South Summit officials anticipated they would not require masks for the final week.