Essential Medicine for Veterans and Youth: Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers

It was a poignant moment during River Rally 2018: Over 400 people, moved to tears, applauding Navy veteran Chad Brown’s heartfelt presentation of the work he’s doing through Soul River, Inc., an Oregon-based nonprofit that teaches U.S. veterans and inner-city youth together to fly fish on wild and scenic rivers, National Parks, and other public lands and waters—and become grassroots stewards and environmental justice leaders.

A former combat veteran, Brown returned from Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and Somalia with PTSD, a condition that causes twenty-two United States veterans to commit suicide every month. Fly fishing helped Brown out of the darkness that consumed him, and he refers to fly fishing as his medicine. “The more you connect with nature, the more it takes you away from what you’re going through,” Brown reflects, “If you pay attention and stay quiet enough, you can begin to understand the layout of nature and the pieces she’s giving you. It’s different for everybody. Fly fishing taps into so many pieces: heart, science, conservation, adventure and the ritual of hunting. It’s not about the fish we catch,” Brown says, “It’s about that something else you’re casting for.”

In an effort to bring healing to other veterans and uplift underserved youth, Brown used 95 percent of his disability check to start Soul River, Inc. The program is provided to vets and youth for free. Airfare, tuition, gear, food, passes – everything – is covered to eliminate financial barriers. Considering Soul River, Inc. runs programs in the Arctic Circle this financial support is significant. It provides access for folks who otherwise would never see the crown jewels of our public lands system, or experience first-hand how lands and waters are at risk and why it’s important to defend them.

In 2018, Soul River sent vets and youth to environmentally threatened areas like the Arctic Circle, Bears Ears National Monument, the wild and scenic Owyhee and North Fork Crooked Rivers. As Brown puts it, “We’re not going to war, but going to environmental war fighting for wildlife, fresh water, rivers.” Soul River partners with government agencies, environmental groups, and tribal affiliations in deployment locations to help provide educational support. The veterans run the programs and mentor youth with Brown serving as the Commanding Officer. Volunteers run basecamp back in Portland and relay communication sent twice daily from Brown to the participants’ families.

Youth help create logistics and curriculum that relates to their interests, do scientific journal breakout sessions, and letter-writing campaigns to Congress in support of environmental protection. Also, there’s fly fishing. “At the end of the day, we’re fly fishing,” Brown laughs, “We’re using it as a thread from the ground up. Nature is a spiritual place: It’s a quiet space, a wild space, and a safe space.”

Creating the safe space needed for deep connections isn’t automatic. “When you’re taking people out for more than 2 to 3 days who are fighting for their existence, we’re going to start peeling back layers of fear until we get to the nucleus of what’s going on.” During programs, there is a licensed counselor on stand-by to deal with the barriers that come up. “We can’t get to the curriculum piece until we deal with the real issues,” says Brown. The core issue is typically fear. The veterans experience fear about what they went through at war. Often there is generational fear for the youth, fear instilled in them to never be caught alone in the woods (lest they be beaten to death or lynched), fear of the uniformed National Park officers.

Those fears can transform into social justice. “The vets serve as mentors to the youth and guide them to dismantle that fear. We work to send the message that this is a safe space, this is a wild space and you have every opportunity to be here in a substantial way and protect this space,” Brown says.

During his River Rally presentation, Brown referred to the relationship that develops between vets and youth on deployments as “iron sharpening iron.” The youth are fighting for their existence, and the vets coming back are fighting for their lives. “We are in our rawest form,” Brown explains, “both fighting to be seen, for our voices to be heard.” During programs, participants build and define their own community, teaching each other how to survive and move forward with their lives. The way Brown sees it, the youth are young warriors who are fighting hard and need help, and vets are returning warriors who are fighting to be acknowledged and find their place again. The bond that happens is like a brother/sister relationship: “Youth give acknowledgement to the vets, but it goes both ways. It’s actually the youth that teaches the vets,” says Brown, “They just need to get their soul reignited to remember who they are: leaders who sign up to fight and protect.” Through Soul River Inc.’s programs, fighters become defenders who reinvent and transform themselves.

Working with tribal communities plays an important role in programs, as well. “Native communities heal their warriors, vets who came home were welcomed and celebrated with music, sweat lodge, and ceremony,” Brown explains. “Going to Bears Ears was a coming home for our vets.” Connecting with tribes also deepens the youths’ understanding of access and history. Instead of learning through textbooks, participants hear the history of waters and lands being sold off. “Hearing from tribal elders helps develop a stronger lens as to why lands need to be protected and be kept sacred,” says Brown. On a recent trip to Bears Ears, the group was guided to a meadow by a Navajo elder and shown where his grandmother was buried. The meadow is now slated to be gutted for minerals and gas. “We went through a process to make this relationship with the Navajo, to walk together and learn why that hurts. They showed us a family album that’s live,” says Brown.

Undoubtedly, Soul River works in an unconventional space. For Brown and the other vets who’ve gone through the program, there’s no clocking out. The Soul River community is tight, they’ve become integrated into each other’s lives. In his River Rally presentation, Brown cited an example of a youth who made a bad decision and ended up in court. Twenty-five vets showed up at his hearing to support the young man and vouch for his character. The judge was impressed by the youth’s community and so he was given a second chance. He graduated from high school and went to Africa to become a teacher.

Many of the youth return from programs equipped to help their communities with conservation. “Ninety-nine percent of youth become leaders, go off to college, get internships with NOAA or pursue conservation careers,” Brown claims. “The youth who see these special places, it sparks a wildfire in their souls to defend wild places.” Brown pauses, then adds, “When I see youth coming in crippled in the mind, and working with them to see them break out of those chains to become leaders, have confidence speaking, pursuing careers, going to internships and see them come back,” Brown says, “Or when I see vets engaging with youth and smiling when I know they haven’t smiled for a long time. . .that gives me hope. I know we’re growing into a community.”

Learn more about Chad Brown and Soul River Inc.