Playing catch-and-relief with wounded warriors

  • Thu Oct 14th, 2010 10:42pm
  • News

Since growing up in the Arlington area, Jill Roed has earned a college degree, moved to Montana, married, and found a career in the mecca of fly-fishing.

She works for Simms Fishing Products. The Bozeman-based company makes and sells top-of-the-line waders, boots and fishing accessories.

On the job, the 26-year-old meets many fortunate people. Affluent adventurers from all over the world visit the Bozeman area to fish for trout in the Yellowstone, the Madison, the Gallatin and other gorgeous rivers of western Montana.

Not everyone she meets is so lucky.

Roed has outfitted amputees for waders. She has helped novice fishermen who suffer from severe brain injuries or terrible burns. Many carry unseen scars of war.

“After they go, I’ll have a good cry,” said Roed, who was Jill Danner when she graduated from Lakewood High School in 2002 and went on to Washington State University.

Simms Fishing Products is one of several companies that support Warriors &Quiet Waters Foundation Inc. The nonprofit organization, established in 2008, takes wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on free fly-fishing trips.

From May through October, for one six-day trip each month, injured veterans are flown to Bozeman and outfitted with all the gear they need. Groups are small, only six veterans per trip. Each person is paired with a volunteer guide and taught the basics of fly-fishing. They are housed in what Tom O’Connor, one of the group’s founders, calls a “lovely log house” outside of Bozeman.

A “fishing 101” session is taught in a stocked pond, before veterans are taken out for several days on area rivers.

“Target clients are wounded warriors in the later stage of rehab, and still under medical care,” said O’Connor, 70, who is retired from the Navy.

The most seriously wounded man he has met is a 22-year-old Marine who was blinded and lost both legs in Iraq. O’Connor recalled the young man saying he was so lucky the roadside explosive hadn’t hit at a slightly different — and fatal — angle. “He was so inspirational. We cry a lot, too,” O’Connor said.

Before starting Warriors &Quiet Waters, O’Connor and other founders traveled to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. With many Americans offering to help in various ways, O’Connor said it took a face-to-face meeting to convince the military that fishing trips would be valuable and therapeutic to injured servicemen and women.

“The first couple of trips, military medical people came. They were vetting us,” he said.

In addition to the San Diego hospital, O’Connor said some veterans are sent from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The veterans not only get a free trip, they keep a fly rod and all the other gear provided by Simms Fishing Products and other donor companies. “They give us their products at cost, and throw in hats, T-shirts, even lip balm,” O’Connor said.

Trips have a shorthand name, FX for fishing experience. By phone from Bozeman Thursday, O’Connor shared the basic itinerary, which includes plenty of hearty food.

After they fly into Bozeman, the veterans are taken out for pizza and then to Simms Fishing Products to be outfitted with all they need.

At the log lodge the wives of O’Connor and other helpers cook a welcome dinner to help the veterans break the ice.

“They’re stressed out and don’t know each other. It’s group therapy without a therapist as they sit around and talk to each other,” O’Connor said.

The next day, they learn to cast in the pond and enjoy a barbecue around a campfire before their trips to the rivers. Each trip includes a guided tour of Yellowstone National Park.

O’Connor said Warriors &Quiet Waters operates on a budget of about $104,000 a year, with funds coming in large and small donations. “Our median donation is 100 bucks,” he said, adding that there’s a waiting list of fishing guides eager to take the trips.

Jill Roed doesn’t get to go out fishing with the groups. She sees the veterans, most of whom have never visited Montana, only when they’re outfitted.

“I’ve outfitted a double amputee for waders,” she said. “One man was missing a limb and was wheelchair bound with severe brain issues. He had a wonderful attitude. He was so excited to just eat pizza and cookies and put on a pair of waders.

“For me, it’s the most humbling experience,” Roed said. “If you’re having a bad day, it puts everything in perspective.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

For information about the Warriors &Quiet Waters Foundation Inc., a Montana-based nonprofit organization that provides free fishing trips to wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: www.warriorsandquietwaters.org.