Jason had always loved to fish. Growing up in the American South, fishing had been an activity he could share with his black cousins and white neighbors, a quiet, easy past-time that even the shyest of boys could enjoy. He'd shared happy memories of long, hot afternoons waiting for a bite, and his wife Julie – a stocky tomboy with thick, blond curls – knew how important fishing had been to him all his life. And yet, when Jason returned from his third deployment missing a hand and ravaged by PTS, Julie couldn't get him out on the water no matter what she tried.
“Almost from the minute my husband came back from that first deployment, I knew something was different,” Julie said, her voice soft and her eyes cast down. “Something about Jason was off.”
Over the next few weeks, Julie came to understand that she was reconciling two very different versions of her husband. The man who returned from deployment looked like the one she married–tall and handsome with soulful brown eyes–yet would withdraw into anxiety and depression for days. He was often irritable or irrational, and became silent and sullen with no warning. Julie would offer up ideas for outings, such as taking in a Padres game or hanging out with friends for a beer, but Jason wasn’t interested. Days turned into weeks and his irritability and anxiety pulled him further and further inward. His nights were peppered with flashbacks and screaming nightmares. For months, no matter what Julie tried, she couldn’t get Jason to leave the safety of their home.
Friends and family were impatient, saying that with his new prosthetic hand Jason should be able to “snap out of it.” Jason became short and temperamental with their two sons, Greg and Tony. Julie was juggling her own job at a sporting good store with caring for her entire family.
Realizing that she needed more solid support, Julie reached out to a number of service organizations, including a group that held caregiver meetings at the Vet Center. She also gradually and gently encouraged Jason to talk about his experiences with a therapist, knowing he needed to exorcise some serious demons. And, interestingly, she found herself drawn to the practice of fishing. Even if Jason wasn't ready yet, Julie found peace and solace out on the water, and soon was tying her own flies and teaching lessons.
In all the busyness of her life, Julie learned to seize any window of opportunity no matter how small the opening. Just as a long, rainy day had moments where the rain subsided, so did the emotionally rainy days of her life. Julie didn’t take a single open window for granted. If some friends were getting together for a short getaway—she was definitely game so long as she could find help with childcare. (Jason could only watch the kids for a brief period of time.) If Jason was having a good day, she was all his and enjoyed just spending time with family.
It was on one of Julie's getaway days fly fishing that she learned about Project Healing Waters, a program dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities. Recalling Jason's lifelong love of fishing, she signed both of them up for a Healing Waters retreat.
“Fly fishing with the love of my life on a quiet river brought back our flow,” Julie said, going on to say that these quickly became the moments they valued the most.
“Jason became certified as a fly fishing instructor and I work as a guide during the summers. It allowed our family to get away from it all in nature.”
Learning to tie flies (he can tie them with one hand) and to cast taught Jason to adapt to his injuries and gave him a new skill that he can be proud of. Jason had certainly fished, but he'd never experienced the subtly complex world of fly-fishing until his wife introduced it to him. Jason didn’t think he’d ever find anything as meaningful in life as bonding with his comrades in the military, but her encouragement inspired him to be curious and try new things. Sharing her passion brought them closer together.
Today, Julie is hopeful about the future as she and Jason are both continuing to complete certification courses so that they can make this a full-time career. The Healing Waters program is international now, and the couple plans to follow the rivers to help other veterans. Jason feels like he’s making a difference in the world once again, and wants to be remembered for taking positive, proactive steps after his military career.
“Going out on the water and forgetting about Afghanistan even for just a few days satisfies my soul,” he explains.
Now when the world gets too stressful, Jason knows how to cope. Being on the water gives him a feeling of belonging in the universe and a reminder of his bond with Julie. That connection is crucial.
“It’s just us, the water and the fish,” Julie said. “Helping other veterans learn to fly fish has given us both new meaning, purpose and peace.”
They're both so happy to have traded nightmare screams for gently flowing streams.