Vets take to the river
August 16, 2015
Perched on a large rock at the Silver Creek Landing, I sat photographing drift boats that came close enough to capture on camera, waiting for my mystery ride to the other side of the river. My assignment was to interview a group of US military veterans during their first McKenzie River fishing trip. Having grown up as a Navy braåç, I knew this would be special.
When a drift boat skillfully came close enough for me to see the fishermen wearing US Army tee shirts, I knew “my ship had come in.” Indeed, with military precision, my boat transport was right on time. Marine veteran, and elite river guide, Greg White, invited me to hop in for the short ride across the McKenzie to the chosen lunch spot.
River guide Buzz Kleven, also a US Army and Marine veteran, was busy setting up the site, complete with table, chairs, cookware, and the largest cast iron frying pan I had ever seen. The military vet fishermen, who had tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Germany, piled out of the drift boats, and settled in to watch the guides prepare lunch.
The trip was arranged through Freedom Hunters (www.freedomhunters.org), a nonprofit group whose goal is to help support healing and restoration for US military vets - whether they sustained injuries during service, struggle with PTSD, or other post-service challenges. Many Freedom Hunter chapters exist throughout the country supported by private and corporate donations of time, funds, or resources such as fishing and hunting equipment, as well as lodging and meals. Although vets provide their own transportation to the adventure site, the rest is provided through Freedom Hunters.
Navy vet and Freedom Hunter river trip organizer, Casey Heide, grew up in Springfield. While he now lives in North Dakota, where his wife in on active duty with the US Air Force, Casey still regards the McKenzie River as “his” river. For those struggling with PTSD, connecting with nature, and having outdoor experiences can be a powerful means to help heal and restore lives, Casey says.
Jeremiah Brewington grew up in Alaska, and served in the US Army for 17 years, fourteen as a squadron leader. Army vet and Purple Heart recipient, Chris Phipps, thoroughly enjoyed the fishing trip, along with Chris Barnson, another Army vet, who served in OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom), who loves hunting and fishing.
“It was a great experience, amazing people to spend time with, such great therapy for me,” Barnson said of the outing. “I can’t thank everyone enough for all they did for us veterans. I won’t ever forget this, and met new friends. Beautiful place. I will visit again for sure. Freedom Hunters has made it possible for me to fly fish for the first time and it is a new hobby for my healing. I am blessed to have had this chance to attend. Thank you Casey.”
Local Thurston Army vet, Dennis Dutton, described the Freedom Hunters as “awesome,” and said he was “totally appreciative of the gift of a day on the river” - his “first ever.” Dennis served in Germany, as a US Army computer operator tracking artillery, and said his Army years were the healthiest of his entire life.
While the men relaxed and bantered, Greg and Buzz were busy skinning the morning’s catch of precision lined rainbow trout, then preparing their secret recipe for frying the beauties. No one seemed to mind the pound of butter that magically disappeared between cooking the fish, and the fresh apple flambé. The jokes, recipes, and fish stories began to roll in, as Greg and Buzz skillfully peeled and carved apple slices for the dessert course.
Jeremiah shared the best bear hunting tales and bear meat sausage recipes. Chris was not far behind with his secret barbeque sauces and marinades. Of course, Navy vet, Casey, told the best “shark” jokes, and admitted he would rather face 30-foot waves on the ocean than Marten Rapids. As we gathered for a few final photos, one of the men quipped that they were the “Seven Dwarves.” I was most happy to be Snow White. Among those seven were at least three who had earned Purple Hearts.
The lunchtime fixings were cleaned and cleared, and it was time to leave. There were more fish to catch. The men got back to active duty, quickly casting their lines as they drifted down river. Casey’s river. Our river. And now, their river too.
Photo By Ada Weeks. Enjoying the river on Friday were (from left): Chris Phipps, Buzz Kleven, Casey Heide, Dennis Dutton (in boat), Jeremiah Brewington, Chris Barnson, Greg White.
McKenzie River Reflections