A VETERAN’S DAY RETROSPECT
I was seated at a table in the local pizza place drinking a cold one and waiting for a large pepperoni to take home after an afternoon of chasing stripers from my kayak. It just happened to be Veteran’s Day. Lost somewhere in the recollections of a fun fall of fishing in the Bay and the longings for late season steelheading in New York, a voice from behind asked, “Mind if I sit and wait with you?” Turning, there was a tall, lean young man wearing a ball cap holding a bottle of Yuengling. ”Please be seated!” I said. Extending his hand and introducing himself, he took a chair across from me. His name was Jim.
Engaging in small talk, he told me that since he had just moved into town and was yet not set up to fix dinner at his new residence, he was waiting for take-out Italian dinner. A pensive appearing fellow in his mid-forties, Jim wasted no time telling me that he was an administrator at the VA Hospital in Perryville about nine miles away. Since I was well aware of the building complex sitting on the shoreline of the renowned Susquehanna Flats, I told him that I use its water tower as a marker when kayaking to locate a place on the flats that is usually quite productive for striped bass. Jim replied that he loves to fish and to kayak, but he never combined the two. In fact, he continued to say that he usually just fly-fishes the streams of Pennsylvania. At that point, we connected.
After telling him he should try to fish the Flats with a fly, he replied that sometimes he takes a few patients at the hospital to the dock over looking that vast area at the mouth of the Susquehanna River and they cast lures with varied success. That then led to a discussion of the therapeutic value of fishing in any form. Jim related that at the VA Hospital in Pennsylvania where he was formerly employed he worked with Project Healing Waters taking Vets fly-fishing as a means of treating their damaged bodies and psyches. Unfortunately, he said, a similar program at the local VA is so mired in political red-tape that it has withered on the vine. Jim’s frustration with the system there was palpable.
It turned out that Jim was a former Marine once deployed in Iraq. He was quick to state how messed up the government is when it comes to providing aid to the Veterans. He noted that there are many good people at the hospital willing to do the right thing, but the bureaucratic bullshit it takes to get needed assistance for many of the Vets is stifling. As a painful example, he then told me about his best buddy from the war who had just died from a heroin overdose in June – another neglected soul lost in the sea of forgotten victims of the system. Beyond the fact that he was alone on Veteran’s Day, there did seem to be a pall of sadness engulfing Jim that night. Now the reason was apparent.
In all honesty I told him I was not a believer in war, but I also emphasized that I was very much a believer in helping our Vets overcome atrocities no human being should ever have to experience. In that light I reiterated my belief that the magical powers of fly-fishing can definitely heal ailing spirits. So, on that note, Jim and I agreed to try to bring a fly-fishing program to the local VA in the near future. Before parting ways, I sincerely thanked him for his military service, and, as I grabbed my now luke-warm pizza, he gave me his card. As we both left with our dinners in hand, I watched Jim walk away into the world of his solemn thoughts.