On September 11th, 2010, nine years to the day from the tragic, cowardly attacks on our country, I found myself boarding a crowded bus that would take me from my home in Muskegon, Michigan to my National Guard company’s mobilization station at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. I had boarded busses similar to that run-down Bluebird many times in my 24-year military career. They never seemed to go to fun places like Disneyworld or the Bahamas but I always ended up jumping on board anyway. For my entire adult life those lousy reconditioned school busses took me to Army airfields for trips all over the world.
From my beloved home on the shores of Lake Michigan I travelled to our mobilization station, spent a month or so honing my combat skills and then boarded a crowded, cramped contract flight for the long trip to Camp Virginia, Kuwait. At six feet and four inches tall I struggle with cramped flights. Luckily this one was almost three hours faster than walking the same distance and before you could say, “herniated disk” we were at our destination and ready to end the war on terror. As I stepped from the plane’s stairs and onto the 120-degree tarmac I shielded my eyes with my hand and looked desperately for anything that resembled a lake, stream or river. I am an avid fisherman. My wife would call it “crazy obsessive” but I like avid fisherman much better. It sounds less lunatic-y. I have never done well in areas that were not within sight of some body of water. The Army seemed to have known this and for the 10 years I was on active duty they had sent me to Panama (an isthmus), Haiti (an island), Cuba (another island) and Alaska (pure heaven). The National Guard seemed to have misunderstood the deal I had with the Army and had mistakenly sent me as far away from water as they possibly could. Resigned to my fate I looked around frantically for a young private with his damn hands in his pockets that I could take out my frustrations on. It was going to be a long deployment.
For an excruciatingly long, 10-month tour I supervised a platoon of convoy escort teams as they watched over the long lines of trucks bringing supplies into Iraq and returning equipment back to Kuwait. Every third day we would return from Iraq to our base in Kuwait to do some laundry, restock our gun trucks and play some Call of Duty. Every few weeks the undeniable urge to cast a fishing line would strike and my soldiers would know it was time to lay low as I stomped around both countries, mad at the National Guard, the lousy, savage insurgents and the miles and miles of hot sand. Although I was far from all that I held dear, the deployment provided me with a second family that kept my spirits high as we went through the trials and tribulations of a combat deployment…together.
After 10 months of intense heat, sandstorms, and a terrible week that saw the evacuation of one of my wounded soldiers, we finally got the word that we would be heading back to our families. We boarded an airplane that seemed to travel at 25 miles per hour and ever so slowly made our way back home. After a week of medical exams and approximately 35,000 forms to fill out, I arrived home. Within one day I had a fishing rod in my hand and a fat Largemouth Bass pulling on my line. I was with my family, I was physically and mentally healthy, and life was good.
I met Eric Wentzloff shortly after I got back from Iraq. I was speaking about the National Guard to a group of students at a local high school and their teacher politely waited for me to finish before he struck up a conversation about, of all things, fishing. I soon found out that Eric was the president of a local West-Michigan charity called Flyin’ Heroes. This organization was passionately dedicated to reaching out to veterans through the sport of fly-fishing. As I listened to him speak I was struck by his enthusiasm for his program. The grandson of a World War II veteran, Eric explained that Flyin’ Heroes used the therapeutic and healing powers of the river to heal the wounds of battle. It was open to all branches, all eras and deployment to a combat zone was not a prerequisite. After a really nice and informative conversation I was surprised when Eric simply asked me if I wanted to go fishing.
Like many soldiers, I don’t feel comfortable being recognized for something I swore an oath to do in the first place. The only physical problem that I have from my deployment is the 15 pounds I gained eating my wife’s cooking after so long with Army food. My only mental problem is that I sometimes tend to act like a 15-year old kid but I had that particular issue long before I was sent to Iraq. I had soldiers who came home from Iraq with hearing loss, sight loss and traumatic brain injuries that haunt them to this day. Many others returned to find that the ravages of PTSD had impacted their lives. Still others watched as wives and girlfriends decided to give their love to young men who didn’t leave to defend their country. Although Eric assured me that Flyin’ Heroes was also about saying “thank you for your service”, I declined. For the next few months I tried to help Eric’s program by promoting it within the National Guard. We kept an open line of communication and spoke frequently. The more I got to know him, the more I was impressed with his program and their goals.
Shortly after I returned home from Iraq and met Eric, I was approached by my 17-year-old son who told me he had decided to join the Army. In my mind, worry and concern fought a battle with pride. Images of Afghanistan and Iraq flashed through my head. In my dreams, the soldier I had become so close with, and was almost killed while we were deployed, took on the face of my son. In the end, the pride of seeing my boy serve his country in a time when so many others opted out of their duty won the day. Signing the papers for my son to join the Army during a time of war remains one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. Knowing how good my life in the Army was made it easier to handle, but only a little easier. In our monthly conversation I shared the news of my son’s enlistment with Eric. After congratulating me he excitedly asked if I would like to attend a Flyin’ Heroes trip with my son. What better way, he contended, to celebrate both of our service to our country? Saying no to a trip for me was easy. Saying no to a trip for my son and me, before he left for Basic Training, proved impossible. I scheduled our trip for September and waited patiently for the big weekend to come around.
As I mentioned earlier, Flyin’ Heroes gives back to veterans using the sport of fly-fishing.
That’s fly-fishing. Fishing for trout with a long, whippy rod and a little piece of hair on the end of the line.
I think now is a good time to mention that I am an avid bass and pike fisherman. I spend very little time fishing for trout. I use large, Neanderthal tackle to catch large, Neanderthal fish. My fishing rods have the action of a telephone pole and my “ultra light” is a six foot long section of fence post. I have never used a fly rod and was curious about what a trip on the river for brown and rainbow trout would entail.
Would I have to buy a special, short vest with poufy, cottony stuff on the pocket?
Would I have to start smoking a pipe?
Would we go wine tasting after the trip? If so, would I have to stick out my pinky finger when I drank?
I don’t own anything from L.L. Bean and I don’t mind saying; I was worried I wouldn’t fit in. I was even more worried that I would fit in. The day of the trip crawled ever closer and, finally, one morning we found ourselves at the shore of the beautiful Pere Marquette River in Baldwin, Michigan. As I crawled into the drift boat I sarcastically asked Eric if all the banging around was going to traumatize and scare his fragile, beloved trout. Knowing I was a bass fisherman, Eric assured me that the trout would be fine and politely asked me not to drool in his boat. With growing smiles and the promise of a fun trip, Eric rowed the boat deftly into the current and we were on our way.
Eric had anticipated my needs and had a nice, sturdy spinning rod in the boat and for the first little while I stuck with what I knew and casted a plug all over the Pere Marquette river. My son, being younger and smarter than his old man, embraced the fly rod and in no time caught a couple of nice brown trout. Eric saw the frustration on my face as my son out-fished me. He wiggled the fly rod at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say “how about it?”
With a glance over each shoulder to make sure a bass fishing buddy wasn’t hiding behind a bush I took up the noodly rod and funny looking reel. After some instruction from Eric I was sufficiently beating the water to death with my rod, the line and the fly. It turns out I have a very unique fly-casting style. Eric described it as “unconventional” while my son depicted it as “having a seizure.” After an hour or so, I started to get the hang of it and actually caught a fish! Well…fish is a bit generous. “Fingerling”, “baby” or even “bait” would be more fitting. But I had caught it!
The tug on the end of that long rod ignited something deep in my soul. As the fish struggled, I had the desire to shop at an Orvis shop instead of Wal-Mart’s tackle section. As the net slipped over the small, beautiful brown trout I got a craving for Earl Grey tea instead of my ever-present Red Bull. As I cupped the small salmonid in my hands and watched the cold, clear water rush over him (her?) I even thought of trading in my Merle Haggard CD’s for some soft jazz. Was I becoming a fly fisherman?
Of course not. That would be silly.
I was, however, having a great time on the water. Eric turned out to be a perfect guide and handled the drift boat like he was born behind the oars. I took a turn in the front of the boat and as we rounded a bend I saw we were rocketing toward a tree jutting out over the water. Rocketing may be a bit of an exaggeration but it felt like the tree was coming awfully fast. Digging deep into my memory I picked through the useless Simpson’s trivia, song lyrics, and the phone number to my childhood home and found the old, worn shoebox labeled “geometry.” I tried to remember enough of that math hocus-pocus to use current speed, course of travel and some sort of formula to determine if our paths would converge and I should dive overboard before being decapitated by the tree. As I sat in the boat with a dopey look on my face and smoke emanating from my ears in concentration, Eric slowly dropped one oar in the water, tugged on the other and the tree passed harmlessly by, a foot from the boat. As I slowly turned, my face white from my near-death experience, Eric slowly grinned and told me, “That was a pretty good hole we just passed.” The rest of the trip passed without any scenes from the movie Final Destination playing out.
As we floated down the river everything seemed right with the world. If you’ve never been on the Pere Marquette River when the leaves are turning colors and transforming the landscape into a giant impressionist painting it needs to get pretty high on your bucket list. The weather was perfect, the company was excellent and even the fish were cooperating. The stress from my deployment floated down the river with all of the fallen leaves. Sharing the experience with my only son made an otherwise great trip the trip of a lifetime. As I sat in the back of the drift boat and watched my son excitedly catching fish I didn’t see a young man about to embark on his own military adventure. Instead, I saw a four year-old boy with skinned knees and a plastic Snoopy push-button fishing pole giggling at the worms we used as bait and screeching in pure happiness as he caught a tiny bluegill. At that exact moment I didn’t care about catching bass or trout, I didn’t care about fly rods or spinning reels. I didn’t even care about my service to our country. All I cared about was sharing that precise moment in time with my “little boy” in one of the most beautiful places on earth. For that, I will always be indebted to Eric Wentzloff and Flyin’ Heroes.
As I put the finishing touches on this blog entry my son…. my Combat Medic son… is only days away from boarding some beat up, reconditioned Bluebird school bus and making a trip to an Army airfield. By the time this reaches the interweb he will be in Afghanistan making his own memories and protecting the freedoms of every American (and even some Afghans). I am in for a lot of sleepless nights. Nobody worries about deployed soldiers as much as soldiers who have deployed, especially fathers. But as I put up my blue star flag in my front window I am comforted by the time I got to spend with my boy and the fact that a year from now he will be out on the river, casting that funny looking damn rod, with Eric at the oars and his proud dad in the back of the boat, smiling and ducking trees.
If you’re a veteran who wants to experience your own trip with this amazing organization visit their website here.
If you would like to donate to this organization and help them offer such a great service to those that have given so much, please click here.