- Tom Murray
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The Healing Powers of Fishing
Rodney Thurman is a man who has experienced the healing powers of fishing first hand. As a child growing up in central North Carolina, Thurman’s love for fishing was established early. Little did he know, those early days of cork fishing for bream would develop into a passion that would not only give him a brand-new outlook on life, but also an entirely new purpose to live. Thurman’s inspiring story is a prime example of Warriors & Quiet Waters mission and how they are able to utilize fly fishing as a catalyst for positive change in the lives of post 9/11 combat veterans.
Simms: Tell us a little bit about your childhood and background?
Thurman: Well, I was born and raised in Central North Carolina. I guess I lived a pretty typical childhood. I spent a lot of time playing outside with my older brother and younger sister, cork fishing in ponds and stuff like that. As I got older, I spent a lot of time working on farms and stockyards and things like that. Pretty typical stuff growing up in a small town.
Simms: Did you always know you wanted to join the military?
Thurman: I don’t know if I’d say, I always knew I wanted to be in the military. However, I had always been on the adrenaline side of life and I knew that I wanted to keep it that way. My brother who is a year and a half older than me went to college and I saw my family struggle to make payments and stuff like that, so I decided that I’d take a different route. So I went through basic training, airborne school and ended up in an airborne unite in Central America.
Simms: When was that?
Thurman: I guess that was sometime in the late 80s.
Simms: Was that your first deployment? What kind of things were you doing down there?
Thurman: Yes, that was where it all started. We were providing DEA and CIA support for the guys down there on drug missions and things like that. Other than that, our big objective was to help train for jungle warfare.
Simms: What was your favorite aspect of the military in those early days?
Thurman: Really just the overall picture of what we were doing. Jumping out of airplanes, rafting down rivers, everything that came with it just really suited me. Knowing something could go wrong was a real draw for me.
Simms: Any major negatives?
Thurman: Well, I really didn’t like all the bug bites and stings that came from living in the jungle. But other than that, I guess the part I really didn’t like was the downtime. You know, in between missions, I just didn’t really like barracks life. I didn’t party so there really wasn’t a lot for me to do.
Simms: When did you get out and what was your plan once you were out?
Thurman: I got out after the Desert Storm time frame. I used the GI bill that I was given and got a degree in engineering. I wasn’t really thrilled about being in an office, but I knew it was something I had to do with my life. I was pretty good at designing things and I did a lot of work with brands like John Deer and Caterpillar designing buckets and things like that for front end loaders. Basically, I used that degree as a means to support myself in life.
Simms: But eventually, you reenlisted, right? Tell us about that.
Thurman: After I got out the first time and while I was working as an engineer, I just felt like my life was in slow-motion. During that time, I got married but other than that, my life was in a bit of a blur. Then 9/11 happened and everything changed.
Simms: As a Veteran, what was it like for you to go through that event?
Thurman: I was on my way back to the office from getting some supplies and I heard a report on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I didn’t even really believe it was real. I got back to the office and everyone was gathered around the TV. They all turned to me as I walked in and that’s when the next plane. And that’s when I knew it was real. And that’s when I knew it was on purpose. I went straight to the CEO and said, look, this stuff that’s going on, it’s not going to end tomorrow. I need to be off for a while. I came back a couple days later and told him, this was something I need to do. I knew it was going to be an extended campaign.
Simms: Having already been in, did you come back as an officer?
Thurman: I had enough credits and all that stuff to come back as an officer, but I didn’t. I knew the younger people coming in would need somebody with a little maturity to come in as enlisted at their level. So I decided to come back as enlisted to help lead those younger guys.
Simms: This is early in the conflict, right? If you don’t mind, can you tell us about your injury?
Thurman: Yes. This is early in the conflict. I was in Northeast Afghanistan near the Pakistan border checking on some villages, doing some reconnaissance. On our way back from the mission, there was a fire base getting rocketed and getting hit. The guys inside the mortar pit inside the fire base didn’t realize we were coming back in. I get couldn’t get anybody on the radio. They lit up the sky with an illuminating mortar round. When they did, the other guys they were firing on saw us coming over the ridge and they returned their fire at us. It was just that simple. I’m trying to dodge whatever was coming at me. I went to take cover in what I thought was a small ravine. Well, that small ravine was actually the edge of a 25- 30-foot cliff. I had a really heavy ruck sack on and when I went over the edge of the cliff, it kind of drew me over and drove me into the ground.
Simms: With all the adrenaline, did you know how serious the injury was right away?
Thurman: I knew I busted my teeth and yeah, I knew something was bad wrong because my eyes weren’t together. One was looking this way and the other was looking that way. But, I knew that I really hurt my back. That was my main concern.
Simms: How long was it before you got help?
Thurman: I must have been out, but my two guys came over and rolled me over and we made it back to the base. Aside from my injuries, my big concern was that I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to get separated from my guys. I stuck it out as long as I could but eventually, I was put on a helicopter and taken to Bagram to get worked on. I still remember to this day getting my teeth worked on in a tent with Novocain, a hammer and a chisel. That was absolutely the worst. I got an MRI and all that stuff and they finally called the company and said “He’s done. Do not let him do anything, he’s done.” At that point, I was fast tracked out of there.
Simms: How aware were you about the severity of the situation?
Thurman: Obviously, I knew I had quite a few physical issues but early on, I had no idea about the mental issues that were to follow.
Simms: PTSD mental issues specifically?
Thurman: You know, PTSD in my mind is a really broad issue. Losing guys, and dealing with other traumatic events, that’s something everybody is going to go through. That kind of stuff is going to stick. That’s just human nature. I’m not trying to downplay that stuff at all, I’m just trying to say that my mental issues, aside from dealing with loss and traumatic experiences, was the fact that I missed it.
Simms: What do you mean? You miss the adrenaline of conflict?
Thurman: Yeah. Once you are hunted and have hunted other people, it’s a hard thing to get away from in your mind. For me, I miss the adrenaline of doing the things I did. You miss the part of looking for bad guys and making sure they don’t find you first. I don’t really know how to explain it. I’m not somebody who likes to be watched through somebody else’s sights or anything, I just think that once you become accustomed to being on high alert and having all of your senses heightened at all times, something happens when there’s no longer the need to be that aware. Once that need is gone, there’s a big void that’s left.
Simms: Do you feel like fishing has helped fill that void?
Thurman: Absolutely. Personally, I love fishing deep in Yellowstone. In the backcountry of Yellowstone, you’re fishing in wild country and you have to always look over your shoulder and be aware of your surroundings. I love to hunt fish in a setting where I truly don’t know what I might encounter.
Simms: So let’s back up a bit. After you returned home post injury and before you became acquainted with Warriors & Quiet Waters, what was life like for you?
Thurman: To be honest with you, there for a while, mentally, I wasn’t there. It took me a long time to get to a point where I could think deep enough to realize I was in a bad place. They had me on so many cocktails of medication, it had me messed up for years. So again, I really don’t remember much about that part of my life. It wasn’t until my wife helped wean me off all the meds that my head started to clear to a point where I could even think.
Simms: When your head did clear, what was your initial thought about the life you were living?
Thurman: I was just kind of like, man, I’m not even living, I’m just kind of here.
Simms: So how did you become acquainted with WQW?
Thurman: I wasn’t aware of WQW. My wife was always looking for something to help me out of my funk. I’m not even sure how she became aware of WQW but she found it, signed me up, and the next thing I knew I was packing up to head to Montana for my first FX.
Simms: How did you feel about it?
Thurman: There was a part of me that was really excited about it, but there was another part of me that was extremely apprehensive about it. It had been so long since I had left the house. Like I say, I was in a really bad place mentally at that time. In the photos from my first FX, you can see it in my face. It’s really interesting for me to go back and look at those pictures compared to how I look and feel today. You can absolutely see the change in my face.
Simms: Where was most of your apprehension coming from?
Thurman: Just stepping outside of my comfort zone and being in busy airports was a real stress for me. It overwhelms me to have so many people around, intercom announcements, what gate do I need to be at, what gate am I at, where’s my ticket. All that stuff that seems minor for most people is a big deal for me. But, I powered through and made it. I was pretty frazzled but I made it.
Simms: Can you describe your first FX
Thurman: You know, that’s tough. To answer your question, no, I can’t really describe it other than saying it was unbelievable.
Simms: Would you say that the FX you attended was a major step towards you living a life worth living again?
Thurman: Absolutely. We talked about the void I had in my life. I’d say the biggest thing about that first FX that started to fill the void, was gaining a new sense of confidence. The meds they had me on put me in a deep black hole. I was just coming out of that black hole just prior to my first FX. When I got there, I hadn’t done anything in my life for a long period of time that I felt I could do confidently. After the second day, I started to feel like, hey, I can do this. Not only that, I felt like I could be pretty good at it. It’s been a constant learning process where I can gain confidence all the while. In fly fishing, no matter how good you get at it, there’s always something new to learn. So yeah, it was a major step for me. You know, I felt confident going into a cave, or jumping out of an airplane or on the shooting range. I had just lost all of the confidence I once had. To this day, I’m continuing to gain confidence in fishing and that in turn continues to fill the void I was feeling. I’d also add, that after that first FX, I came home and told my wife that we were going to sell the farm in North Carolina and move to Montana.
Simms: I’m sure she was elated that the experience was so positive, but how did she feel about moving across country?
Thurman: One thing I’ll say about my wife is that she has played a tremendous role throughout this entire journey. Between me deciding to reenlist, my injuries, the mental funk I was in, all the way to moving to Montana, she’s been nothing but supportive through it all. You know, things have a really funny way of working out, but in the end, it all worked out. We sold the farm and we’re going strong here in the Bitterroot Valley. Everything just fell into place.
Simms: What is your involvement with WQW currently?
Thurman: I had such a great experience and as soon as I moved out here, I wanted to give back. So I reached out to WQW and asked to volunteer. I’ve been back many times as a companion and I’m about to go back as an assistant team leader. It’s kind of funny. Last year, I was contacted about WQW’s Coaching Experience. I thought I was being contacted to help when in reality, I was being contacted to be a participant. That was a really great experience and kind of kicked me into gear to set out on a new path.
Simms: Tell us about the Coaching Experience.
Thurman: Sure. A big part about the Coaching Experience is setting a lofty goal whether it’s professional or private, or whatever. So they assign you a coach who you work with on achieving that goal.
Simms: What was your goal?
Thurman: Since I’ve been out here, I’ve just been getting more and more into fly fishing and all the while, people close to me had been suggesting that perhaps I should look into becoming a guide. I hadn’t really thought about that but figured, well, that’s a pretty good goal and so that’s the goal I set for myself.
Simms: And where do you sit on that goal presently?
Thurman: You know, things have just really fallen into place. I enrolled in a one-on-one guide school and every day, we were on the water. Rivers, lakes, tying flies, learning about bugs, rowing, you name it. They dropped me in on the Yellowstone at 5,000 CFS and we were off. Where I sit now, well, I’m proud to say, I got my guide’s license and from here on out, it’s just going to be history in the making. I’m taking it slow, but I’m on a great path.
Simms: Well cheers to that! Any final words on your journey, Warriors & Quiet Waters or your life in general?
Thurman: I’d just say, WQW is not some place to go and get out all your troubles and share all your horror stories. You can talk about your conflicts, what happened to your buddies and things like that but really, that’s not what it’s about. That’s a fleeting moment that happens every now and again around a pool table at night. The rest of it is – your fly fishing, you’re talking about fly fishing, you’re learning about fly fishing, you’re experiencing nature, the list goes on and on. There’s no requirement for you to be special. There’s no requirement for you to be great. There is however a requirement for you to have fun. It seems like a long road that I’ve been down, but it really wasn’t too long ago that I was in that dark place. So much has happened to me, and so much has changed for the better since I first set foot in Montana with WQW. If I didn’t take a leap of faith, step out of my comfort zone and attend that first FX, I really don’t think my life would have changed. I think I’d still be sitting there on that farm living in a daze. It’s allowed me to have a new life. It’s allowed me to have a life worth fishing. It’s made me feel connected to the world again.