I have been struggling to write this story for two months. I’m having a hard time with it because it's the best example I've seen of why the Armed Forces Initiative exists and I am not confident I have the right words to do these events justice - to capture the emotion and consequences of it all. It's been 60 days since this event, and at this point it is more important that this story gets told than to tell it perfectly.
I wanted to write a simple article about our north-woods musky fishing trip in September. I wanted to write about how in three days of fishing we were able to put 11 muskies in the boat, and how amazing that is given that it isn’t uncommon for anglers to go years without landing a musky. Every time I start writing about the fishing portion or the public lands portion of this trip I end up telling the stories we told around the campfire instead. I want to talk about the fishing and use it as a resource to promote the Armed Forces Initiative and get more veterans into the woods and waters. Even now, writing this from my tree stand a month later, I find myself desperately looking around for a deer, raccoon or squirrel - anything for an excuse to avoid this emotional space in my mind because, damn, if it isn’t tough to think about. Twenty years of war, two-thirds of my life spent in the pursuit of a warrior lifestyle, and the Taliban is still running Afghanistan. So here’s an article less about taking six veterans fishing in the big woods of the north, and more about the end of the war in Afghanistan and 9/11.
Three weeks after the last U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan was the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Six months before this event when I was planning the Armed Forces Initiative musky fishing trip I didn’t think twice about the date or the emotional effects that an end to the Afghanistan war and the 9/11 anniversary would have so close together.
I had emailed and called the six participants for this event weeks before the event, but outside of those brief conversations I didn’t know them at all. I knew we had three Marines, a Navy Submariner, and two Army veterans who had all joined the service after 9/11 and who were all out of the military before the war had ended. I knew none of them had fished for musky before and that some would be borrowing some camping equipment because they hadn’t been “in the field” since they left the service.
The first night everyone was a little guarded as I gave my pitch on BHA and the Armed Forces Initiative around the fire. They ate their brats and beans but mostly kept to themselves. After dinner I noticed one of the participants sneaking sips from a flask, and, as these are supposed to be dry events, I pretended not to notice. As we sat and discussed the next day's strategy, tactics, and boat assignments the sneaking became less sneaky and the participant more talkative. I didn’t mind so much as it was getting everyone else talking more, and it led to some nervous laughter as everyone had a case of the jitters about the next day's fishing.
The next morning was a different story, as this participant was the only one who was not ready at the 4:30 a.m. wakeup. While I made breakfast and packed everyone's lunches, I kicked on his tent several times to no response. As I got everyone packed up and put on their boat for the day only one participant wasn’t ready. We finally got him up and in a boat around 6 a.m. I was more than a little annoyed at that point but was ready to start fishing. We had only put one small musky in the boat the night before and I wanted everyone to have the most opportunities possible to catch the fish of 10,000 casts.
Throughout the day I had the chance to talk to all the attendees, and inevitably the recent events in Afghanistan came up with each of them. We talked about how old they were when they enlisted, what they wanted to be when they grew up before 9/11, and what their experiences had been transferring into the civilian workplace and society. All of this seemed like innocent conversation meant to fill the gap between casts, follows, fish fights and clumsy landing attempts.
By the end of the day we had nine fish between all the participants, with our sleepy participant landing five, including a 28 inch monster walleye we ended up keeping for dinner. As we stood around the fry pan watching the golden bubbles and listening to the loons calling, our faces were simultaneously hit with the heat from the burner and the chilled air coming off the lake. The participants were all smiles, and there was a feeling of success in the air with another day of fishing the next day.
While we stood there basking in success and in the sticky warm air above the sleepy participant let out a long sigh. The kind of sigh that could hold a thousand words, a sigh where you can feel the pressure leave the body like when a semi truck releases its air breaks. He said, “Guys, I really needed today.” No one said anything and no one needed to; we all felt it and knew he was right. We spent the next few hours talking about who we were 20 years ago and who we might have been without 9/11, without the war. We mused on the incalculable number of lives that were permanently altered by the last 20 years of fighting and wondered if we were better off because of it. Was the world better off? Had we done any good at all?
We spent the rest of the night telling a lot of stories about guys we knew, and about ourselves. Those stories belong to the men who told them, and they are not for me to tell.
But I can tell you my story. If you would have asked any of my teachers or parents on Sept. 10, 2001, what I was going to be when I grew up, they all would have said I would do something in the outdoors working with animals. I wanted to be a biologist or wildlife scientist. I had spent my summers volunteering at the wolf science center in east central Missouri or fishing at the pond behind our house. I was completely obsessed with animals and the outdoors and was certain that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up.
I was 11 years old when I watched the attacks of 9/11 in 6th grade. They pulled all the kids into one classroom and wheeled in one of those old TVs on the metal stand. I remember a strange facial expression all the teachers were wearing as they whispered back and forth. I remember the principal of the small school coming into each classroom and talking to each of us about what was happening. I was normally terrified of this man, but that day he sounded strange. In hindsight I realize this was the first time I had ever seen an adult afraid, and the unnatural expressions and tone were fear. In the next few weeks as the details about 9/11 came to light, I changed my mind on what I wanted to be when I grew up. After Sept. 11, 2001, any of my teachers and my parents would tell you I was going to be a soldier.
Every veteran I talk to from this generation tells the same story, with a few variations, but it wasn’t until this musky fishing trip that I realized the implications of an entire generation dedicated to war for 20 years. A whole generation who spent their formative years thinking about war and trying to be the best versions of themselves to prepare for that war.
Now the war is over. We became soldiers, sailors and marines because that’s what our country needed after 9/11. We enlisted because that’s what you do when you country is attacked. An entire generation of veterans spent the last 20 years either thinking about war or fighting in a war, and now that that war is over we don’t know what to do. What do we do now? We have never been adults during peacetime; we were never even teenagers without the war.
It’s hard not to be pissed about it because in our minds we all did the right thing. To not have joined up after 9/11 would have been passing that problem on to someone else. To us, not enlisting would have been cowardly and selfish. But now the war is over, and now we’re back in a world full of people who didn’t enlist. It's borderline infuriating because now we are all behind our peers who didn’t enlist, who saw 9/11 and said to themselves, Someone else can handle that. We could have been scientists, titans of industry, small business owners or teachers, but instead we dedicated our lives to a war that seemingly has no purpose now. What do we do now? In WWII when the war ended soldiers came home and went back to work at their old jobs, or folded back into society and went to school or learned a skill. WWII was four years for the United States; the war in Afghanistan was 20 years. We don’t have jobs to go back to. We barely have any idea of what a civilian career would look like; we have been focused on war for so long.
"What do we do now?"
I heard that question a dozen times on that musky trip, not really directed at me or any of the other veterans, just left out there in the hot air above the fryer, drifting up and into the chilly night on that north-woods lake. I didn’t have an answer.
The next morning I made breakfast and sent the guys home before I headed back out onto the lake for one last shot at a musky before winter took hold. Motoring around the lake throwing lures the size of my forearm I couldn’t get that question or their stories out of my head. When I served in the Army my greatest motivator was my team. I could go without sleep, or food, as long as my guys were OK. That’s why I volunteer for the Armed Forces Initiative. The veteran community is an extension of my team, and part of me will always need to look out for my guys. On the drive home I decided I knew that answer to the “what do we do now?” question.
I can’t take you back to Sept. 10, 2001. I can’t give you back the last 20 years of your life back so you can do it over different. I can’t give you back all the holidays you missed or relationships that ended because you chose to serve. I can’t bring your friends back. What’s done is done, and we all have to live with it. What I can do is focus on making your next 20 years the best years of your life. I can show you the joys of the outdoors and America's public lands and waters. If no one else understands your experiences, the mountains will, the moss-covered trees of the north will, the rivers and rocks will understand. You veterans more than anyone else have earned peace. Let me help you live in it, and maybe in time we can find who we were on Sept. 10.
If any of this made sense to you, and if, like me, you find motivation in taking care of your guys or gals, I have plenty of work that needs doing. Sign up for the Armed Forces Initiative as a volunteer, and let's make the next 20 years the best they can be.