Veterans find healing on the water

Sun Valley, Idaho (AP) – Standing at the edge of a clear pond in
the Idaho mountains on a cold day in early October, former U.S.
Marine Angel Gomez made a timid cast with his fly fishing rod.

The surface rippled under a sweeping wind. The line as thin as
dental floss billowed down to the water, the hooked fly slapping
the surface first. A weathered American flag flapped against a
backdrop of snowcapped mountains.

Gomez was on his second deployment to Iraq in 2005 when the
seven-ton truck he was driving was hit by an improvised explosive
device. A piece of shrapnel, about the size of a quarter, struck
Gomez in the head and penetrated his skull, leaving him with
traumatic brain injury.

Now 24, he came home unable to read or write, without any
sensation on the right side of his body, a half-moon shaped scar
carved into the side of his head.

He had to relearn everything.

And here he was on this frigid day, attempting to coordinate
mind and body, casting line after line out into the water as part
of a Sun Valley Adaptive Sports program designed to help wounded
service members rebuild their physical skills, rediscover their
confidence and independence, and reintegrate into their communities
through sports and recreation.

The weeklong fly fishing program is one of eight sports and
recreation camps held each year in this central Idaho resort region
for wounded service members. This fall, the fly fishing camp was
designed for veterans with severe traumatic brain injury.

The men carry postwar burdens that include chronic headaches,
post traumatic stress disorder, hearing and short-term memory loss,
renal failure, seizures and spinal injuries.

At a private estate along State Highway 75, the seven men
embarked on their first day of fishing, practicing awkward casts in
the grass before their fishing guides deemed them ready.

Two of the veterans at the pond are in wheelchairs, some use
canes. Knit caps are eventually removed, revealing scars and
offering a small glimpse into the turmoil these men and their
families have undergone.

Lisa Antoine sat underneath a tree, grinning at her husband
David, an Army reservist who was called up in 2007, as he worked
his fly line. Last February, she received in the middle of the
night a phone call telling her that David’s military vehicle had
been hit by a roadside bomb, and that he had suffered nerve damage
to his back and neck.

Now 44, he continues to suffer from headaches, photosensitivity,
blurred vision and severe hearing loss. Along also struggles with
post traumatic stress disorder.

“He still can’t deal with it,” said Lisa Antoine, 44, a
certified nursing assistant who has watched her formerly outgoing
husband withdraw since he came home. “He doesn’t like to go
anywhere, I have to drag him.”

Her hope for the fly fishing camp is that it will inspire her
husband to realize “you don’t have to be secluded from everybody.”
She then leaped to her feet as David reeled in a trout.

She squealed in delight, screaming, “Go get it, honey! Go get
it!”

Across the pond, Jordan Riddle watched the fun, but was
determined to claim the most fish. The former Army combat medic was
the only member of his platoon to survive after a building they
occupied was blown up.

Riddle, 26, was in a coma for nine weeks. He said his family and
a former high school classmate were the only outside contacts he
had during his long recovery. He and his classmate married Sept.
26.

His new wife, Hope, traveled here with him from Arlington,
Texas.

“I’m looking for a break, I’m looking for my soldiers because
ever since I’ve retired from the Army I’ve felt like I’m alone,”
Riddle said, his voice choked with emotion. “I don’t have my
brothers anymore.”

During the weeklong fly fishing program, the veterans will hear
about different ways to combat their depression and isolation,
about how to harness the frustration and anger that erupts when
they can’t perform what used to be simple tasks. They’ll talk about
their struggles with their spouses and other veterans who suffered
traumatic brain injuries.

Sun Valley Adaptive Sports is one of 100 chapters of the
Disabled Sports/USA, a national nonprofit established by Vietnam
veterans in 1967 to serve the wounded after they return home from
war through sports rehabilitation.

The Idaho organization started a sports and recreation program
for severely injured service members about five years ago, adding
the fly fishing camp last fall. The nonprofit has since held three
fly fishing events, covering all expenses for the veterans, their
wives and offering to pay for any child care they may need while
traveling to Sun Valley.

Therapists consult with each service member before and after
their Idaho experience, helping them identify goals and map out a
plan to achieve them. The organization will follow up with the
veterans for three years, said Tom Iselin, Sun Valley Adaptive
Sports executive director.

Before the veterans even touch a rod, the fishing guides from
Silver Creek outfitters and the adaptive sports employees are
briefed on the injuries and needs of each veteran. They are shown
what to do in case someone has a seizure. They learn how to help
the veterans recognize what triggers their stress, and how to
better manage it through recreation.

Over the course of the week, their confidence builds. They hear
words of encouragement from their guides and the adaptive sports
team.

But on this day, at the beginning, retired Marine gunner
Christian Ellis, among the first vets to participate in the camp
last year, knew just how the new men felt – skeptical that a week
of fly fishing could help chase away mental and physical
demons.

“When we first got there, you could see in our faces, we don’t
want to be here. We’re very suspicious, we’re on edge,” said Ellis,
who was part of a convoy in Fallujah insurgents ambushed in
2004.

His back was broken, he suffered severe spinal injuries. The
post traumatic stress disorder would come later, invisible scars he
took with him after he was discharged in 2007 and described as “a
giant hole you can never jump over.”

Ellis had previously participated in another weeklong
recreational program for wounded soldiers at a ranch in Texas.

“It was great, but once you leave that environment, you end up
feeling twice as lonely, twice as worthless,” said Ellis, who lives
in San Diego.

When his Veterans Administration social worker recommended the
Idaho program, he was leery. He had never gone fly fishing. It
didn’t help that this program included spouses, he was gay and
might have to explain this to other veterans.

But with Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, he found himself, over the
course of the week, opening up.

“I didn’t even know I was talking about issues that bother me,”
Ellis said. “I didn’t have any nightmares, I didn’t feel any
anxiety. They made us feel important.”

The organization also found out that Ellis, who had been
classically trained in opera before joining the military, wanted to
start singing again. A week after he returned to California, the
San Diego Opera contacted him and he started voice lessons, which
Sun Valley Adaptive Sports has paid for over the past year.

The last group of veterans to participate in the fly fishing
program left Idaho last week. The organization is now working on
helping them achieve a new set of goals, which include securing
jobs they can do with their disabilities. Others want to go back to
school and need help.

It all worked for Ellis. Sun Valley Adaptive Sports also put him
in touch with a nonprofit that helped him get a car. He’s enrolled
in community college. And he’s singing.

“Everything I lost, they gave it back to me tenfold,” he
said.

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