Two Rivers

An Iraq war veteran finds a bridge from the Euphrates to a local Massachusetts river. "In the corner of my eye I suddenly saw on

  • By: BFFilson

A wounded Iraqi war veteran finds solace on the water:

Fly-fishing had given me purpose again.

I had just finished talking with a local Iraqi farmer about his land. I asked if he had any pertinent information about the river that we were following, but he turned out to be another tight-lipped local who could play the fool with the best of them. Stopping for a brief moment, I wiped the stinging sweat out of my eyes. It was a hot day but as the sun sat lower in the sky the heat had become bearable. The river had taken on a quiet quality in the early evening, as most do on a summer day.

Gazing out at the stork high-stepping in the reeds, the world slowed down for me, and for a brief moment I felt tranquility for the first time in months. In the corner of my eye I suddenly saw one of my vehicles go up in a huge ball of dust. A second later I heard and felt the blast from the I.E.D. Here we go again I whispered to myself as my meditative state imploded. Just hours earlier we had found a boat with all of the materials to make an I.E.D except for the explosives. During the past three days we had been sweeping across the Euphrates collecting weapons caches and insurgents; it was only a matter of time before they caught on.

Prior to Operation River Sweep, my platoon had been stuck in the city of Rawah without running water, hot chow or communication with loved ones for 30 days of non-stop patrolling. By the end of Operation River Sweep we were all exhausted, most were miserable, yet I was rejuvenated and happier than I had been in years. It was a happiness that at the time I could not explain or even understand until I returned home.


On patrol in Iraq

Eight months later I'm standing next to a much smaller river, going through the motions of casting a fly rod without much line materializing. A metal contraption is holding my shattered tibia and fibula in place. The area around my skin graphs is swelling and turning pink, which inevitably leads to an excruciating pain that pulsates throughout my leg. Im on my eighth fly, whose siblings are hanging just out of reach from the tall oak trees that surround me. I still cannot think of any aspect of trying to learn how to fly-fish from scratch that I had fun with, yet the moment I leave the river I cant wait until I return.

I was wounded just over one month after I swept the banks of the Euphrates.

Almost losing my leg, I was medically evacuated with one of my Marines whose leg wasnt as lucky. As a Marine infantry officer, I commanded a platoon of more than 40 Marines in combat. I was responsible for millions of dollars worth of weapons, armored vehicles and gear, and on a daily basis affected the lives of hundreds of Iraqi civilians and soldiers. I thrived on leading Marines and within the 30 minutes in took to Med-Evac me to Al Asad CASH, all of my responsibilities had been ripped away from me. I no longer had control over the well-being of my Marines. And after two months confined to a Bethesda Naval Hospital bed, and a long, cold winter recuperating back home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, it was only the rekindling of a long lost relationship'”and the persistent love of my family'”that was keeping me from absolute despair.

My girlfriend had given me The River Why by David James Duncan to read because she knew I had fished the brook behind my house as a kid with my fathers old cheap bamboo fly rod he bought as a 1st Lieutenant in Okinawa. Reading about Gus exploits as a fly fisherman, and his deep contemplation inspired by a river, sparked a fire in me that I had never felt before. I began reading more and more about this sport.

The author and his girlfriend, Rebecca

When the snow had finally melted away, I made a trip to Manchester, Vermont, to buy my first fly rod. My destination was Orvis, but I was sidetracked and found myself at The Reel Angler in Manchester Center, Vermont, where I met Wayne and Dagmar, who took me under their wing and taught me everything from how to pick out the necessary gear to employment of such gear. There are few sports I have come across where the proprietors of the specialty shops are as helpful, friendly and passionate as those who own and operate fly shops.

Spring had come and for the first time in months I had something to look forward to. In the beginning, fly-fishing had definitely posed a challenge both physically and mentally. I had five more months before the Taylor Spatial Frame was removed from my leg so wading was completely out of the question. The pain from being on my feet for more than several minutes meant that I needed a stool to set up by the river. The painkillers I had to take had complete control over my mood by April so if I was late on my dosage I would soon develop painful withdrawals that would leave me in such a zombie state that my girlfriend could no longer recognize who was staring out of my hollowed eyes. Yet the pain, the withdrawals, the frustration, and the fact that I wouldnt catch a single fish until Wayne took me to his practice pond six weeks after I began fishing, would not deter me from going back to the river every day I could.

A few weeks after Wayne had taught me enough to catch the occasional trout,

I decided to go fishing for the first time alone. I chose to fish a section of the Green River that would take me through a section of woods. I did not think anything of it until I had reached a draw that would have left me completely exposed to an ambush, on a path that could hide a pressure plate I.E.D. without any effort at all, and I realized it wasnt my M-4 in my hand it was a 4-weight. All of my senses suddenly spiked at once, my sweat ducts started tingling and I was able to hear, smell, and taste everything around me, a familiar feeling of those who know the sound of incoming fire. The strange thing that happened, however, was I found myself searching not for an ambush site, or a triggerman, but for a shadow, white flash or a rise on the river. My conscious mind had told me that I was no longer in danger of the threats my subconscious was trying to protect me from, so I consciously focused my attention on the river. It was at that time I realized the connection between standing next to the Euphrates and standing next to a hometown river. Fishing was always missing in my life yet even though I was always happiest near water, I was oblivious to what I was missing. Fly-fishing had given me purpose again.

Now, at the end of the longest winter I have had to endure, I wait until the lakes thaw and the fish start biting again. My bones are healed but I still have many more months of physical therapy before I can take on another billet with the Marine Corps. To keep myself occupied I focused on tying flies and reading during the winter months, but needless to say this has been the worst case of cabin fever Ive suffered. However, I am a much happier man than I was last winter. Which I attribute not only to my girlfriend, who has shared her life and this new passion with me, and family who has supported me, but also to fly-fishingl. It is not a secret anymore that this sport has an ability to heal the mind and body. A group called Healing Waters has realized this and makes it their mission to help injured veterans of all wars to recuperate through this art. I only wish that all veterans coming home from this war, and those who still suffer from past wars, can know the joy of feeling a pulsating trout at the other end of a fly line.

1st Lt Brent Filson is a wounded Marine currently recuperating at home in Massachusetts. He returned home from Iraq in December 2006 and took up fly fishing that spring. This sport has saved me from absolute depression over the past year,' he says.