Iraq, Vietnam veterans inspired by common bond

Only weeks before a sniper shot him in the chest in 2006, Sgt. 1st Class Marvin Johnson had managed to find a fly-fishing rod in the middle of Iraq.

He would steal away in quiet moments to practice casting — whipping his fishing line into an empty, sandy lot in Baghdad, slowly pulling it back in.

It was relaxing. For a soldier who grew up fishing in Indiana and who was stationed in Alaska, it was almost normal.

The fun didn’t last.

Johnson was on duty when the bullet hit. It tore up his lungs and shattered his ribs.

He survived, but the bullet rendered his left arm essentially paralyzed. An infantryman who had been in the Army for 14 years, Johnson had loaded and fired 60-pound mortars for a living. The mortars could fly free for nearly five miles before crashing back to Earth.

His injury meant Johnson no longer felt free at all — to fire mortars, to fish, to do anything.

He was lonely, too.

Shipped off for recovery at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Johnson, now 37, was separated from his unit, his friends and his family.

In those dark days, though, Johnson found Jesse Scott, now 77, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran who lives in Edmonds.

A close friendship blossomed between the young Army soldier and the much older Air Force veteran.

As friends, they offer each other hope and purpose.

Together, Scott invented and Johnson helped improve a device that now gives soldiers across the United States and others with hand injuries something to smile about.

During the Vietnam War, Scott served three covert missions in the highland jungles of Laos, west of Hanoi. He and his team conducted bombing raids and aerial surveillance as they tried to slow the southern advance of North Vietnamese troops.

Scott remembers huddling in dark, smoke-filled rooms with foreign defense ministers and the CIA chief of unit. “A lot of it was politically sensitive,” he said. “You (were) on your toes. You (had) to dance.”

Until his activities were declassified in the 1990s, Scott couldn’t even tell his wife what he had done.

Fly-fishing passion

That was the past, though. In 1987, Scott retired from the Air Force. After a second career at Boeing, he retired for good in 1996.

Since then, he’s pursued friendships with fellow veterans.

He has volunteered with injured soldiers at Madigan, and he still meets weekly with aging veterans at Seattle’s Veterans Affairs hospital.

A passionate fly fisherman, he’s brought the sport to veterans, spending untold hours talking technique and tying flies.

That delicate process combines sharp hooks and miniscule materials. It requires patience, skill and, until recently, two working hands.

Scott’s newest friend didn’t have those.

“Marv (Johnson) had no semblance of a second hand,” Scott said. “Everything from his shoulder on down was inoperative.”

Within days of their first meeting, Scott was looking for ways to rekindle Johnson’s interest in fly fishing. He looked for a device that would allow Johnson to tie flies. Nothing like that existed.

Instead of giving up, Scott invented one. Using a relatively complex set of magnets, he managed to create a sort of second arm complete with an elbow, a wrist and three fingers. Injured people can manipulate the second arm with their real one.

Scott named the device the “Evergreen Hand” after the Everett-based Evergreen Fly Fishing Club where he is a member.

With Johnson’s help, Scott and his friends improved upon it.

Soon enough, news trickled out.

The national Federation of Fly Fishers magazine published an article, and online fly-fishing bulletin boards lit up.

Scott published a do-it-yourself manual online and people across the nation started making their own. Veterans’ groups dedicated to rehabilitating wounded soldiers started using the Evergreen Hand.

Before long, fishermen from North Carolina to Massachusetts started producing the devices, too.

Stories of veterans, stroke victims and injured people using the Evergreen Hand are filtering in from everywhere. It’s heartwarming, Scott said.

“We were never going to go into the Evergreen Hand business,” he said. “All I wanted to do was get the word out so more guys can use it.”

That’s a goal that people across the country appreciate, said Dr. David Nelson, a San Francisco-based orthopedic hand surgeon.

Pair of tough guys

Nelson chairs the fly tying group of the Federation of Fly Fishers. Even if tying flies isn’t necessarily important, the Evergreen Hand is, Nelson said.

“It’s not ‘fishing.’ It’s not ‘catching fish.’ It’s the therapy that these guys need,” he said. “They think they’re tying flies; we think we’re giving them their masculinity back.”

Scott understands that.

So does Johnson. In November, his uncle, also named Marvin Johnson, was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Johnson’s own tough-guy image is reflected in his nickname, “Sgt. J.” Everybody calls him that except Scott, who calls him “Marv.”

“Most people are scared to call me (Marv), but Jesse’s got some pretty good fight in him,” said Johnson, who said he’s learned about more than just fishing from Scott, as the use of his arm has slowly returned.

“I really love the guy,” he said. “It is OK for a man to love another man. That’s what I’ve learned. He’s been an addition, an asset to my life. He came at a time when I really needed him.”

The Evergreen Hand was built for Johnson, and even though it now helps people around the United States, Scott hasn’t made a penny.

He doesn’t mind. He knows exactly how he wants to be paid back — he wants Johnson to get completely healthy.

Every time they get together, Scott checks up on Johnson’s health the same way: He asks Johnson to flip him off. Johnson can’t. Not yet.

Still, the goal is something they both laugh about.

“It would be my sign that, OK, those fingers are better now,” Scott said. “Someday when I walk in, and he flips me off, then I’ll know the job is done.”

Chris Fyall: 425-339-3447, cfyall@heraldnet.com.

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