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In Montana, group uses fly fishing to help vets

For a few hours on a sun-soaked autumn morning, Dan McGuinness stands ankle-deep in Montana's idyllic Sixtee...

Posted: Nov. 13, 2018 4:32 AM
Updated: Nov. 13, 2018 4:33 AM

For a few hours on a sun-soaked autumn morning, Dan McGuinness stands ankle-deep in Montana's idyllic Sixteen Mile Creek. His thoughts focus on casting a fly lure to the perfect spot, drawing the attention of spawning brown trout just upstream. It's his moment of zen.

"A place of serenity, a place to relax, a place to have some fun," explains McGuinness, a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician. "There's a lot of people that find extreme peace and joy in Montana."

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After three deployments to Iraq, the North Carolina native medically retired from service and moved to Big Sky Country five and a half years ago. He sought, in part, its abundance of nature and lack of people.

"There's definitely a draw to the West for a lot of guys who want a little bit of quiet and want to seek nature," says McGuinness. "There's vets everywhere."

According to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, Montana has the second highest veteran population per adult capita in the United States. More than a third of Montana's veteran population served post-9/11.

"They don't want to be around a lot of people," explains Karl Rosston, Montana's suicide prevention coordinator. He is very familiar with Montana's veteran population because the state also has one of the country's highest veteran suicide rates. Veterans account for one out of every five Montana suicides. The reasons for these alarming statistics are abundant.

"I always hear about people moving to Montana from California or something because they want to get away from the big city. And what they don't realize is the very thing that they're getting away from actually may be harming them," Rosston says. He believes isolation, combined with the state's culture, long winters, lack of sunshine, and easy access to firearms pose threats to veterans struggling with physical and emotional war wounds.

"We have major issues with stigma. We see this not only in Montana, but then you throw in a vet in Montana and it's even worse," Rosston explains. "So that kind of cowboy-up mentality, sense of independence. We take care of our own. We don't talk about our problems. And when it comes to mental health issues we see it as a weakness and we see ourselves as a burden."

That unwillingness to discuss mental health issues is an obstacle Warriors & Quiet Waters, a nonprofit group based in Bozeman, is helping combat wounded veterans overcome.

The group invites post-9/11 veterans from all over the country to participate in week-long fly-fishing expeditions. Veterans are outfitted with clothing, gear, and lessons before spending two days on some of the country's best fishing rivers. The foundation's executive director, Faye Nelson, believes a critical part of the experience is camaraderie forged between veterans with shared combat experiences. That bond, she says, allows them to open up about their struggles.

"Most of them aren't interested in coming to a program where they get to know another shrink," Nelson says. "Veterans are really sensitive to programs that say, 'we're going to fix you,' or 'you're broken, you need to be fixed.' So, we make it very clear to them that's not what this is. And no one's in their face. It's very much a hands-off passive therapy experience." And while the foundation is happy to provide a week of respite and relaxation for these wounded warriors, it knows its mission will only be successful if veterans' lives change long term.

Nelson believes Warriors & Quiet Waters is doing just that, pointing to data collected from surveys given to participants three months after their fishing week. In the organization's 2017 annual report, more than half of the warrior participants stated they felt more connected to others, had more control of her/his life, felt a willingness to participate in community activities, and had an increase in satisfaction from personal relationships.

Rosston, Montana's suicide prevention coordinator, is not surprised.

"Some of the organizations that get vets involved with outdoor experiences or experiential experiences are critical," Rosston says. "It creates a sense of belonging, a source of connection and a peer-to-peer they're not getting by themselves. And I think the more of those types of organizations that we have, the better off we are going to be."

For McGuinness, his week fly fishing with Warriors & Quiet Waters has been the ideal respite from the pain he deals with daily from spinal injuries he suffered while in the Navy.

"Every action I take is a direct reflection of how my symptoms flare up," he said. "And I'm going to pay hard when I get home. But this has been worth every second of it."

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