“I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched.”
– Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
ALDER – Fly fishermen often talk about the peace and tranquility. But it could be that knowing peace means a lot more when you’ve known the horrors of war.
Aaron Seibert is Navy Corpsman with the Wounded Warriors Battalion West in Camp Pendleton, Calif. On April 27, 2006 a mortar shell in Iraq nearly killed him.
He was read his last rights and stood little chance to make it off the battlefield. But he lived.
Four years later he learned how to fly fish on the Big Hole River.
Seibert came to Ruby Springs Lodge in Alder as part of a program with Warriors and Quiet Waters, a Bozeman organization the gets wounded veterans out fly fishing around southwest Montana.
Seibert grew up fishing, but Thursday was his first real day out on the water fly fishing. He spent the day on the Big Hole River and did well, catching somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 fish.
“It took my mind off of everything,” he said. “It was so relaxing.”
For a man who has suffered the painful physical injuries of war, that means everything. It’s hard to find a place or moment when he’s not thinking about his experiences, not remembering, Seibert said.
He and five other Iraq War veterans were at the Ruby Springs Lodge last weekend. The group was at the high-end fly fishing lodge as guest of the owners John Sampson and Paul Mosely.
The event came about quiet fortuitously, Moseley said.
He and Sampson had been talking for a couple of years about figuring out a way to give back to veterans, he said. One of their regular groups at the lodge is the West Point class of 1967.
“We got to know those guys and really connected with them,” Moseley said.
In January a group that had booked the lodge for Memorial Day weekend canceled and the two men saw their chance to reach out. Rather than book a weekend of paying clients, they contacted Dave Kumlien at Warriors and Quiet Waters.
“It was rather short notice and the Warriors and Quiet Waters were able to pull it together,” Moseley said.
The trip is a special extension of what the Warriors and Quiet Waters do several times each year since 2007, Kumlien said.
The group was organized by Dr. Volney Steele with the idea that getting war veterans out on moving water in the mountains of southwest Montana would be therapeutic, he said.
“I have never seen a program that had such a palpable impact on people in such a short period of time,” Kumlien said. “You will see noticeable changes in most of them in their demeanor and personality. There’s just something about mountains and moving water that is relaxing.”
Most of the fishing trips the group puts on are based in Bozeman. The veterans who attend are outfitted with all the gear like a rod, reel, waders, flies – the works. All of it is donated. Then they are taught how to fish on private ponds around Bozeman. The following day they are sent out with volunteer guides on one of the many area rivers.
“Most of them, the large percentage of them, will tell you this thing has been a tremendous part of their recovery,” Kumlien said.
For Seibert he could feel things starting to change. He talked freely about his experiences in battle because he knows that is the only way to continue with the recovery that is both mental and physical.
Seibert took more than 100 pieces of shrapnel. His leg was nearly destroyed.
“Every step I take is painful,” he said. “I’m lucky that I’m here. I’m lucky I’m alive.”
The Wounded Warriors Battalion is there to help Marines and Navy Corpsmen get past not only their physical injuries, but also the mental struggles that come with war, Seibert said. Part of that process is to get their sailors involved in charitable organizations like Warriors and Quiet Waters.
Along with the physical pain of his injuries, came the post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. One of the results of the PTSD has been the inability to shut his mind off.
“It’s the burden of combat, which is mine and I’m honored to have to deal with that so others won’t have to,” Seibert said.
But in his cabin at Ruby Springs Lodge along the banks of the Ruby River, he was beginning to feel his mind slow down at least.
Victor Quinones was on his third trip with Warriors and Quiet Waters.
Like Seibert, Quinones had been gravely wounded in Iraq. His humvee was hit with an anti-tank mine. His back was broken and he spent the following two years in a hospital.
When he first got back from Iraq and finally out of the hospital, he was a changed man. He described a bubble that he kept around himself that included his closest friends and fellow sailors. It made life difficult, especially for his wife, who was ready to leave him.
Then a friend of his went on a Warriors and Quiet Waters trip in Bozeman. He came back changed and convinced Quinones to try it.
He did and the change was sudden.
“It changed me from a war-torn veteran to being back on line to being a family man,” he said.
Quinones described himself as an outdoorsman. He grew up in rural California and has always been passionate about the outdoors. That was part of the reason he wanted to be an infantryman.
One of the first things you learn to depend on when you’re on the battlefield is nature, he said. The birds or the animals can tell you when something isn’t right. If you know how to listen to them, they’ll tell you when an enemy is close. They’ll tell you when to put your guard up.
And in that relationship with nature is the key for how things changed for Quinones on his first trip with Warriors and Quiet Waters.
He finally felt safe, for the first time in a long time. He could hear the birds sing and they never stopped.
“If peace had a place it would be Montana,” Quinones said.
The weekend went well, Moseley said. The fishing was really good and all the guides and staff at the lodge were really moved by their time with the veterans.
In turn the veterans were deeply moved by the effort put forth by Moseley and Sampson to accommodate them.
“These guys are true American Patriots,” Quinones said. “John and Paul are the real deal. They don’t expect anything from you. You can actually let your guard down.”
From now on Memorial Day at Ruby Springs Lodge is going to be set aside for veterans from Warrior and Quiet Waters, Moseley said.
This year the lodge underwrote the entire weekend. Going forward Moseley and Sampson are going to work with their client base to help underwrite part of the expense every year, he said.
“We’re going to have donors underwrite warriors for the other half so we can make it sustainable,” Moseley said.
And while he’s grateful that the men had a good time at Ruby Springs, he is grateful for what each of them gave.
“First and foremost it puts everything in a little clearer perspective on what we deal with on a daily basis. You can get moving too fast and you can not appreciate the right things in life,” Moseley said. “These guys are coming back from being at the tip of the spear and seeing things we can only imagine in our worst dreams.”