- John Frazier
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Back in January, Simms wader collection expanded like never before with the launch of the Spring 2019 line. The collection saw revamps of old favorites, but also included a couple brand new models, including one of the best waders for the money out there, the Soul River Stockingfoot. If the name Soul River sounds familiar, it’s most likely because you saw the film Chandalar, a film that follows a group of kids, and decorated US Navy veteran/Soul River Inc. founder, Chad Brown on deployment in the Arctic Circle. Soul River Inc. is a non-profit organization that aims to share the benefits of fishing with veterans and inner-city youth. Chad’s story and overall mission of Soul River has inspired so many people, including the product team here at Simms. To fully appreciate Soul River, and the great work that is being done through the organization, it’s important to have an understanding of Chad’s background and learn how fishing gave him new life, helped him overcome the odds of PTSD, and inspired him to help others.
Simms: So tell us a little bit about your professional progression. Did you always know you wanted to enter the military?
Brown: Not at all. I had always been into art and design so after high school, I started down that path. I applied and got accepted into the art institute in Dallas. I was only there for about two years pursuing a degree in commercial art with a focus on illustration and graphic design.
Simms: What stopped you from finishing?
Brown: Well, as you probably know, those types of private art schools are pretty expensive and basically, I didn’t have the funds to finish. So I ended up joining the Navy to tap into the GI Bill. My father was a Navy man and I always heard him talking, and telling stories about the Navy and and the places he had been. That’s really the extent of me joining the Navy, I didn’t know anything about any other branch.
Simms: Were you excited to join the Navy, or were you nervous? What was that process like?
Brown: To be honest with you, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, I just knew that I wanted to eventually go back and finish up art school. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, and when I finally got in, it was an incredibly rude awakening right off the bat.
Simms: How so?
Brown: Well, I was sworn in in Dallas. I had some down time before I had to leave so I packed up my dorm, and went to North Carolina to spend some time with my mom. Time was getting short, and it was finally time to head to Orlando, FL where I met up with some other recruits who were in the same boat as me. We all piled onto a bus and that was the part that was like the movies. When we got to the base, it was about 1:00am. Right when we arrived, drill sergeants came in hard on the bus like it was the end of the world. Yelling, and screaming, and throwing all our stuff off the bus. It was absolute chaos. We got about an hour of sleep once we got to the bunks and then we were awakened by more drill sergeants throwing metal trash cans down the aisle of the barracks yelling and screaming. It was crazy man, I mean I was scared out of my mind and was thinking, what the hell did I get myself into?
Simms: After boot camp, you were deployed pretty fast, right?
Brown: Yes. Desert Storm stuff was happening so I essentially got called right away.
Simms: What was it like to not really know what you got yourself into and then to be called so quick?
Brown: It was really weird man. The one thing I remember was making a call to my mom and telling her I was about to deploy and that I loved her. I didn’t know what to expect, I just felt like I had a job to do and even though I felt trained and prepared, it was just a really strange feeling knowing I was going to war.
Simms: What was your next move post Desert Storm?
Brown: After Desert Storm, I was immediately sent to serve in Somalia for “Operation Restore Hope” and I was there for the full duration and it was again, a very weird place for me. You know, kind of being thrown in as a creative and in short order taking fire, dealing with deaths of people I considered brothers, it was heavy. My experience there was chaotic, just like the war. It was a wild-wild west mentality with guerrillas everywhere. You just can't imagine constantly taking fire, convoying through the streets of Mogadishu. This went on every damn day for six months straight.
Simms: What was it like once you finished up your time in the service?
Brown: I don’t even know how to describe it. It was very strange. Going from being ready to be called anywhere around the world at a moment’s notice, always on the move, always focused, always performing at the highest level possible, to all of the sudden transferring into a civilian was hard. It was something I never would have expected to be so hard. I guess you could say I really felt alone, and lost. I didn’t know where I was going in my life, other than I was going home.
Simms: Where do you think that lonely feeling came from?
Brown: I think it came from the bonds I created back in the military. I was part of that brother/sisterhood that is there in the military. Sometimes, that bond is deeper than family. When you are giving orders and your mission is to rise to the call of duty, everybody in that unit is fiercely going above and beyond. You’re rising to duty because you know all your brothers and your sisters are doing it without question. And, you also know that each and every one of these soldiers and sailors completely has your back. It is a deep, powerful love. I really gave myself to that family, and as a civilian, I didn’t have that family anymore, or at least not in the same way.
Simms: So what’s next?
Brown: Well, here I am, back at my mom’s house, sitting on the bed, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. My mom is doing the best she can to comfort me but honestly, she really couldn’t. Over time, that extreme loneliness I was feeling turned into anger. My anger got so intense, I realized, I couldn’t be at home any more. I didn’t realize it, but I was about to start going down a really dark path.
Simms: Did you think about going back to school?
Brown: Yeah, but before that, I was taking odd jobs. However, I was getting fired left and right because of my anger, and my attitude. Man, I think I got fired from every fast food restaurant back home. [laughs]. I just had this chip on my shoulder. I had a hard time taking orders from civilians. My attitude was more like, how can you tell me to do something when you haven’t seen what I’ve seen, and done what I’ve done. I was like, I’ve just come from two wars, touring 14 countries, and I'm still dealing with the loss of my brothers, how are you going to talk to me like that.
Simms: Were you looking for fights?
Brown: I wasn’t looking for fights, I was just angry, confused and frustrated, and I didn’t know why. The only thing that spoke to me was art and design. So finally, I submitted my application to get back into art school. I ended up getting accepted to the American Intercontinental University in Atlanta. I went down there, got into the dorms, got back on the path of commercial art and design. I excelled, got honors, graduated at the top of my class, got my bachelors of fine arts in communication design, and minored in illustration.
Simms: At that point, would you say you were on an upward trajectory?
Brown: Yes and no. I took some small freelance jobs here and there, but I also got really lucky and got some bigger jobs that paid enough for me to cover my school. But, all the while, I was still dealing with this anger issue. On the work side, I was really excelling and doing some great creative work. I decided I’d try and get my graduates degree. So I applied and sent a letter written on the back of a brown paper grocery. I really didn't think there was a chance I'd get in. But to my surprise, the dean of PRATT sent me back an acceptance letter on a brown paper bag! So, I got accepted into the Pratt Institute graduate department in Manhattan. So I did that, and got my graduates degree in Masters Science of Arts (MSA) Communication Design and Photography. I continued to take jobs and crank out all this great creative work while in NYC working with Ad agencies and design firms. So as long as I was busy, I was ok, but it was the down time when all the anger would bubble up.
Simms: How was your anger affected by the fast-paced New York lifestyle?
Brown: The fast pace of New York was my best, best friend. New York gave me so much energy, it was almost like being back on deployment. So, in a sense I was able to cope, but at the same time, it didn’t give me the time to deal with my internal battles. When I was alone, it was just a total nightmare. I’d roam the streets, hoping somebody would push me. I was really starting to take on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality.
Simms: You were in New York during 9/11, right? How did that situation effect your situation?
Brown: I was. Wow. I don’t really know how to describe that one. I was actually on my way to a meeting in the twin towers that day. I was running late, and all of the sudden, the train stopped on the Brooklyn Bridge. At first I was pissed because I was going to be even more late. But then I looked up, and front and center, I saw the towers and saw the second plane hit. I was on the train when the towers fell. I didn’t respond like anybody else. I mean everybody was completely freaking out. I was just quiet, and completely stunned at what I saw. I think it was that I just didn’t accept what I saw. It was so surreal.
Simms: So what did you do?
Brown: When the train finally started moving and got to our stop. People just ran off the train, it was complete pandemonium. I just walked off the train and my first instinct was to go to work.
Simms: How did you end up in Portland?
Brown: After 9/11, I just packed up and went to Japan to clear my head. I stayed there around three months wondering around, experiencing Japanese culture and all that. I eventually came back to take a job as a senior creative in Portland. Once again, I was doing well professionally, but still had really never addressed my anger and darkness. Things really got worse. Portland is not at all like New York. It’s a much slower pace of life which as I said before was when the bad times came. I was having anxiety attacks galore, depression beyond belief, nightmares, you name it. The slow pace of Portland gave me time, and space to dwell, and that’s when things really started to unravel.
Simms: What was the turning point? When were you able to rise up and start addressing your issues?
Brown: I got acquainted with a church family and learned about the VA. That’s when I finally started getting the proper help and began dealing with my stuff.
Simms: How did fishing come into play?
Brown: Like I said, I was in a really dark place. It’s hard for me to talk about, but I thought about doing myself in. I was homeless, living out of my rig, and I was giving a pint of blood a week to get money to survive. I ended up finding myself by the river, drugged up with medication, getting ready to do the deal, but luckily I was grabbed by the police. They took me in, had me evaluated, and put me on all sorts of heavy medication. I was confined to the psyche ward for four days and watched by the docs to make sure I wasn't going to hurt myself. At this point, that’s when I started trying to accept myself, and started going through the process of rebuilding. That was when a friend of mine took me to the river. He told me, this is where he would go when he was going through his marriage falling apart. I don’t know man, there was just something about standing in that river that just spoke to me. I remember I was dressed shabby, had no idea what I was doing, over weight, and still strung out on meds. I couldn’t smile, I couldn’t feel the air, I couldn’t carry a conversation. But, I took the rod and I hooked into this jack salmon and all of the sudden, I was beyond excited. I was yelling, and uncontrollably smiling. I could literally feel the medication coming out of my pores. That moment gave me this vibrant energy, you know like I could feel the presence of living again. That was my hook, and that’s what put me into fly fishing.
Simms: Was that it, I mean, from there on, was everything on the up and up?
Brown: Not exactly. I called my doc and told him about this revelation. He literally prescribed me to fish more. As long as I continued to go to my group therapy and all that, he told me he’d start to ween me off the medication. The more he weened me off the medication, and the more I got into fishing, the stronger I felt, and the more I started to feel life. Over the course of time, I began to get pretty good with fly fishing and spey casting and all that stuff. That’s when I really started thinking I wanted to do something meaningful for others, and really got the drive to get back into society and start kicking some ass.
Simms: So I assume that’s when the groundwork for Soul River Inc. was put down?
Brown: Yeah, I guess you could say that. I knew that I wanted to influence young people and bring them into the sport. I wanted everyone to experience what I experienced when I hooked into that jack salmon. That was such an eye-opening, powerful moment, I wanted everyone to feel what I felt.
Simms: When you decided to move forward with Soul River, what was the objective?
Brown: I wanted to reach at risk youth, and show them a new path. I figured, what better place to do that than the outdoors. For the life of me, I don’t know how I was able to live as long as I lived going through what I was going through. Many other vets haven’t been so lucky. So, the other part of Soul River was to give veterans purpose. Soul River Inc. gives youth a platform to grow as leaders for conservation, and leaders for tomorrow to protect our wild lands, and our wild rivers. For veterans, it gives them purpose — it’s a coping mechanism for them to stay engaged, and have a reason to put one foot in front of the other. It’s really a two-way street. The kids benefit, and the veterans benefit. They really help each other find purpose and meaning.
Simms: Can you describe what happens when you bring at risk youth and veterans together in the outdoors?
Brown: When we bring veterans and youth together in these special and wild places, over the course of time, what happens is nature starts to play a roll. There’s an exchange of support for one another. I give you purpose, you give me leadership. It’s not something we talk about, but it’s something that’s presented in a special, welcoming way for both ends of the spectrum. You start to see that veteran give leadership because that’s in that veteran’s DNA. And the program is giving the veteran the space, and opportunity to give that leadership. That’s the therapy, and that’s the healing piece for the veteran. The youth is receiving leadership, mentorship, comfort, and all the while gaining that self confidence they never had. With that self-confidence, comes the ability to love yourself. When you can love yourself, you can start to love the environment. You can’t love the environment if you’re coming from a dark place.
Simms: In the film Chandalar, we got a good look at what a Soul River Deployment looks like. How are these Deployment locations selected?
Brown: For us, a deployment is any place throughout the entire United States that is identified as environmentally at threat. When we define that area, I reach out to conservation groups doing work to protect that area. Their work and campaigns are brought into a partnership with Soul River and I put that into my deployment status box, and that area becomes our ground zero. That ground zero is where we deploy youth and veterans with the mission of learning about the area’s issues, and threats. Experiencing these wild places as they are intended, is what gives youth the opportunity to grow and become leaders for tomorrow.
Simms: How many deployments have you deployed under Soul River and how many kids have gone through the program?
Brown: About 45 deployments, all successful. Throughout all of our deployments there’s been over 300 kids who have made it through the program. I’ve seen so many of these kids go to college, take a career path in conservation and just get on the right path. That’s by far the most rewarding aspect of Soul River.