A Veteran’s search for solace

For many years now we have been big supporters of Project Healing Waters.  They are a great non-profit group that interacts with and teaches Veteran’s all about flyfishing, casting, and tying.  Last year I offered a bounty for any one willing to write some articles for our newsletter and Blog.  Mark Middleton, a Veteran himself, stepped up and has written some articles for us.  This is his story, one that I hope you’ll take the time to read, ponder, and react.  Our Veteran’s need us and our support, even if it’s just a “Thank you for your service”.

The Call of the River and the Veteran Standing in it

Born and raised in North Portland, St. John’s district to be exact, I was what today would be considered a troubled youth. School was tough and the neighborhood tougher.  At the age of 17, I decided that to venture out on my own and leave the hostilities of my youth and the bad influences of the “hood” behind.

I joined the US Navy.  My folks had to sign because of my age, and they were eager to do so, to set me free!  I grew up with my 5 siblings, and like most big families in the 70’s, we didn’t have much.  Ketchup sandwiches were one of my favorite blessings, that and mushroom soup over rice.  Dad was a hunter and butcher by trade, mom a meat wrapper, so we seemed to live on wild game.  Man, I still crave that wild meat today… 

Boot camp, June 1978, came as quite a shocker to this blue eyed, long haired kid from Oregon.  San Diego was hot!  The long grinder marching seemed to sizzle and burn my fair skin. The continuous screaming of Drill Instructors, the constant tearing apart of our lockers and beds for the sole purpose of re-making them again.  I remember often wondering if I were in the right place. I felt stuck when anyone made a mistake, as we all paid the price.  I eventually learned that this was an exercise in teamwork and accepted it for what it was.  Some say that PTSD starts in boot camp, it’s possible, though I probably had a head start before I joined.  I wasn’t sure if I’d even graduate basic training, there was so much to know and memorize.  I really was unaware of how green I was when I hit that first ship.

4 ships and 2 shore commands later, having attained the rank of “Chief Petty Officer”, I found myself with an injured hip because my ball had caved in.  This seemed unreal, and the news of it was devastating.  After all the deployment shots, and West Pac deployments in hostile waters, working endless hours, sending cargo to ships, and endless other duties, I never seemed hurt.  I just toughed it out like the sailor I am.  My second shore billet and I’m hurt?  This came as the build up in the Persian Gulf began.  All the regular Navy Docs were on hospital ships in the gulf.  So, they flew me back and forth from base to the reserve Docs in Oakknol.  I was flying down and back, down and back, for months (again, more stress) before they finally came up with a game plan.  They had decided that to make my hip ball round again.  They would take some of the soft bone from my hip, pin my leg just above my knee, and put me in traction for 3 months.  Yep, 3 months to the day, no early release for this sailor, 3 frigging months!  Once “repaired”, I found myself stationed at Sub Base Bangor, where I was the Division Officer for the river boats running escort for the submarines stationed there.  It was then that the next bomb in my life came.

I was told they were downsizing after the war and I was to be medically discharged.  What?  Damn near 15 years of service, an E-7 Chief who was up for E-8 Senior Chief, in other words the boss, the man.  It was what I had worked so hard for all these years.  Climbing the Ladder, step by hard work and dedication, step.  Now they want to kick that ladder out from underneath me?  I asked all the questions, can I recruit, can I stay on shore function, there has to be another option.  The answer, a resounding NO!  All these years, loyal and gung ho, just to be kicked to the curb.

I thought about all the mine fields in the ocean and the ships that got bombed while I was there.  I thought about the Persian Gulf with all the hostilities and how much they hated us and our country.  I thought about my brother and sisters on the ground that we served.  How can this happen?  Loyal, I served!  I gave an oath to defend our nation and its’ flag (which still flies proudly on my porch daily), to give my life for it.  In a word, I was DEVISTATED!

Once out, I was a lost soul, a chief to no one, I didn’t understand the people I came across.  I’d been a sailor for most of my life, I could talk this talk and walk this walk.  But civilian life???  I couldn’t find a decent job, I was either over qualified or scared potential employers for fear that I would take their job. After accepting my fate, I was able to find work here and there.  Yet I remained lost.  I had a gigantic void that yearned to be filled.  I drank excessively, trying to numb the pain, and with time it only worsened.  I was becoming hyper sensitive, very watchful and trusted no one. 

In 2014 I was invited to tie flies at the “Fly Tiers Expo” in Albany Oregon.  That day, just by chance, I sat next to Chuck Tye at lunch.  Over lunch that fine March afternoon, he mentioned a Veterans program called “Project Healing Waters.”  I had never met this man before that day, but this chance meeting would redirect my life in the most dramatic and positive way. My new friend Chuck led me to Jay Woodbury and Jerry Lorang who were instrumental in PHW in Washington and Oregon.  I went to my first workshop at the Veterans hospital in Vancouver Washington that next week. Here I met a funny chap named Ron Reinebach, who was showing the guys how to tie flies.  While Ron was helping one of the vets with tying, I started helping the guy next to me complete his fly.  Ron looked over and said, “this certainly isn’t your first rodeo”.  Where I just chuckled and said “nope, I am new here, but not to tying”,  I had found a way to fill my void.  I could be helpful with other vets who understood me, knew my language and my experiences.  These are my people, my brothers and sisters, my family and I love them dearly. 

My dad had introduced me to fishing at a young age.  Taking us to the Deschutes often, though in those days we fished with spinning rods.  It was here that I learned what peace was, it became my church, and years later allowed me to keep my sanity.  Now, whilst wading in the currents, the cries of battle are reduced to a murmur.  The smell of a camp fire eases my anxieties and my “fight or flight” syndrome is lessened.  As I start my casts, the smell of the willows and sage calm me as a violin to King Kong. The river is my music and the hillside, it’s album cover.  The motions of the cast, the focus of the presentation, and the wait for the strike all work together to drive my worries away.  I am only focused on technique, wind, smells, and the sounds of the river.

It is here, in the currents of my soul, where I am distracted from life’s tensions and the lingering memories of the sea’s hostile waters.  It is here that my soul can finally begin to heal.  Flyfishing is not my hobby, it is my savior.

As a Senior Petty Officer, it was my duty to educate the seaman under me.  Teaching is still a major part of my life, now I get to teach flyfishing and tying to my veteran brothers and sisters.  Whether they served stateside or overseas, we all took the same oath, and oath that has us bonded into eternity.  It is here that Project Healing Waters helps me as much, if not more than I help them.

I am very honored and humbled to be a part of this community, as well as blessed to still be able to serve in this new capacity. To engage and teach, share my experiences on and off the water, and convey the healing experience that flyfishing has to offer.  There are always lessons to be learned in life, from one another, as we push on in all our endeavors.

Tight Lines, smell the air, and above all else BREATHE,

Mark D. Middleton
BMC (SW), USN Medically Retired

Posted by Jack on 04/30 at 09:43 AM in (0) Comments

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