Casting for Calm

Female vets find solace on Montana's waters. 

One by one they landed at the Bozeman airport, flying in from places as far-flung as Alabama and Washington State. 

The veteran to whom I’d been assigned had just retired from 28 years of service in the Army. Her first combat tour was in Somalia in 1993 and she had trained with Army Lt. Ashley White from the bestselling book Ashley’s War. Ashley’s death, as well as other experiences, weighed heavily on her.

Which is why she came to Bozeman, participating in the Warriors and Quiet Waters (WQW) first all-female, post-9/11, combat-veteran, fly-fishing program. The experience focuses on helping veterans find connection, camaraderie, and purpose through the serenity of fly fishing.

As a designated companion, I would be spending five full days with several women warriors. I’d read Ashley’s War and knew all about the Cultural Support Teams (CSTs). They were formed in 2010 as a pilot program to put women on the battlefield alongside Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other special-operations teams on sensitive missions in Afghanistan. Ashley was killed in action on October 22, 2011, although women were officially banned from participating in direct combat at the time of her death.

Throughout the first day, my veteran talked about what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated army and the challenges associated with being a wife, mother, and soldier who chooses to deploy to war zones. She also discussed what it was like to be stationed abroad, when the guys on the ground weren’t always informed about the CSTs, nor did they believe in their purpose. I, too, had been in the military; therefore, we connected on many levels, but compared to her experience my service was more like summer camp.

The next day, we headed out to Paradise Valley for some Fly Fishing 101.  As we drove, we stopped to look at a bald eagle perched a few feet from the road. After a few minutes, the eagle took off over the Yellowstone River toward Emigrant Peak. The gravel road crunched beneath our tires as we contemplated the beauty of Montana.

Warriors on Quiet Waters, Female Veterans Fly FishingWarriors on Quiet Waters, Female Veterans Fly Fishing

Over the next four days, all the participants learned to fly fish, catching and releasing dozens of trout in rivers and streams up and down southwest Montana. Every day was spectacular with hardly a cloud in the sky and only a slight breeze. More importantly, the fish were biting. Without the pressure of catching and releasing the first fish, we were now able to talk about our lives, and slowly the conversation began to flow, just like the rivers we were fishing.

The real breakthrough occurred Wednesday night, when we had a big sit-down dinner with Eric Hastings, a retired Marine colonel and the founder of WQW. The fishing guides joined us, as did the program donors, who flew in from Pennsylvania. Whitney Gould, a casting world-record holder, talked about what it’s like to be a female in a male-dominated profession. According to Gould, when clients hear that their guide is a woman, they often ask for a guy because they don’t believe in her fishing skills, or they doubt that she's strong enough to row the boat. All the veterans related to Gould’s story and appreciated the comparison, recognizing they weren’t alone in their situation.

Warriors on Quiet Waters, Female Veterans Fly Fishing

Each participant shared her story. One served 16 months in Iraq in 2004 as a Navy Corpsman. She described how when you first hit a combat zone you duck and cover for every incoming mortar, but you eventually become desensitized to the incoming rounds. The veterans laughed about creating a meme highlighting this experience. One woman commented that by focusing on her casting she could forget her near-death experience in combat, and all the struggles that waited for her at home. Some of the women described what retiring from the military was like and how despite having PTSD written in their medical records, the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t recognize this diagnosis because women aren’t allowed in combat, so how could they have PTSD?

Tens of thousands of women have fought in combat since 9/11, many logging multiple tours. As of October 2015, over 1,000 female service-members have been wounded in action and more than 160 female service-members have been killed. Women have played a significant role on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn't lift the ban on women in ground combat until 2013. Despite that fact, all our participants served in combat prior to these dates; my veteran did for 56 months.

Warriors on Quiet Waters, Female Veterans Fly Fishing

As one participant stated, “You may not have one traumatic event that causes PTSD, the one that sets you off. It’s the 1,000 paper cuts that add up.” She then quoted Virginia Woolf: “For most of history Anonymous is a woman.”  Anonymous women veterans are not—at least not to WQW, which is committed to helping them and other post-9/11 combat veterans each year.

The next two days involved more fishing, and more progress for the veterans. Their demeanors changed—they became calmOver WQW’s week-long fishing experience, these women learned to be present and just take in the beauty. They learned a skill normally dominated by men and they crushed it. A male fly-fishing guide observed that unlike many of our male participants, the women would put down their rods, breathe in the beauty of the landscape, and reflect on how thankful they are to be alive and to be fishing in Montana.

Warriors on Quiet Waters, Female Veterans Fly Fishing

Upon leaving Bozeman, our participants had a spring in their step and a new-found purpose. They felt a sense of strength, independence, and excitement for a future that now included a wonderful new world waiting to be explored. Their smiles were broader and more frequent and the conversation changed from focusing on the past to planning for the future. Many couldn’t wait to get home and teach their family members, friends, or other veterans how to fly fish. In short, fly-fishing Montana's rivers was a gateway to a new world and a new life for female veterans who have fought for their country around the globe since 9/11.