CLOSER LOOK: Fishing For Combat Vets, Free Outdoor Adventures Rebuild Trust

Posted on Thursday, November 9, 2023 by Marya Morgan, Kindra Ponzio, Monika Kelly

(K-LOVE Closer Look) – Soldiers in combat see things they cannot unsee. They carry memories of people, places, smells and sounds they dare not share with loved ones, leading many to self-medicate in clouds of anger and pain. Isolation is a leading cause of despair, as the return to civilian life from battle is uniquely frustrating. Among U.S. veterans ages 18–44 last year, suicide was the second-leading cause of death.  One way to push back on this darkness is to spend time in nature with other guys who know the drill.

Heroes on the Water takes war-torn soldiers up a creek with paddles or pedals. “Kayak fishing really helps veterans who are struggling with PTSD,” notes Zack Clift, Central CA Chapter Coordinator. H.O.W. has local chapters nationwide with free outings designed specifically for veterans and first responders. “We provide everything,” Clift explains, “we provide the kayak, the fishing gear, food and water, safety gear and everything they might need for a day of fishing.” Guides are available and volunteers assist vets with physical disabilities. “Last year we had a gentleman come who was a double amputee, he lost both of his legs in Afghanistan.  

Sometimes they paddle in creeks, but sometimes on lakes or the ocean. Any nearby body of water can bring healing to veteran who feels alone. “It’s proven that the H.O.W. program works,” Clift says, reporting 88% of participants tell them the expedition gave them confidence to develop new relationships and a whopping 98% confirm it helped them relax. “I’ve seen veterans come out that we had to pry out of their houses -- and now they’re out kayak fishing 3 or 4 times a month,” Clift recalls. “That in itself is extremely gratifying to know that we can get our heroes reintegrated back into society.”

Reintegration is a chief objective of WildOps, another outdoor adventure ministry designed specifically for combat vets.  “We seek the isolated veteran – a big chunk of them that don’t wanna be found,” says founder Jeff Morris. “We bring them to a place and encourage them and show them a way to get free – with hope in Christ.” They do not preach or teach, but instead take them to places like Ansel Adams Wilderness or 11,000 ft in the Sierra Mountains or rural Montana. Like H.O.W., all aspects of WildOps expeditions are completely free to the vets. “We work hard to give them the experience if a lifetime -- and they come to life out in the wild.”

WildOps specializes in PTSD but does not require a participant to have a physical injury. “We learned early on there’s about four or five groups that will maybe never pull a trigger -- but have greater damage than some of the guys that do.” Guys like embedded photographers who experience the war through their lenses, or a tank mechanic who was suddenly drafted for morgue duty. “We don’t require you to be wounded in the purple heart sense.” They also include soldiers who were dishonorably discharged, have misdemeanors or wear ankle-bracelets. The hardest of hearts are welcome. 

“Everything we do we do through questions,” he explains. Even if a vet says, “I hate Christians,’” Morris replies, “have you always felt that way? Let’s go fish.”

WILDOPS cabin flags.PNG
[Photo Credit:] WildOps


Soldiers invited to join a WildOps trip are carefully chosen and briefed on expectations ahead of mission launch. “One of the worst things you can do is coddle a combat veteran," he warns, "you need to respect and speak to them like the warrior they are." Therefore, he is direct. “I’m talking to the warrior inside of you and I’m asking you to come out for one more fight – this one's for yourself, your wife and your family -- and if you’re ready for that then this program is for you.”

Morris has been present when battled-scarred soldiers finally opened up about their traumatic experiences. “I’d say 95% or more that go through the program by the end will say, ‘I’ve never told anyone that.’" Getting things out in the open while out in the wild is key. "I believe the majority of trauma can be healed,” he says, but believes two things are needed: time and trust. “What God has blessed us with is creating an environment where these people trust us.” 

“There is hope and people are getting free.”

WILDOPS 4 flyfishers.PNG
[Photo Credit:] WildOps
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