The report of six shotguns cracked, intermittently shattering Crazy Rainbow Lodge’s quiet atmosphere 18 miles southwest of Casper.
A dozen clay pigeons exploded mid-flight. A dozen more lay broken and forgotten in the dead, dry grass.
Behind the Warriors Afield Legacy Foundation (WALF) 2016 “Cast and Blast” firing positions, I cradled a Browning Citori 725 double-barrel 12 gauge shotgun in the nook of my arm and listened to my mentor explain the finer points of leading a target.
Gunfire rolled over me that day in late March without so much as raising a hair. I did not check my peripherals for threats perceived or imagined. The pit in my stomach that usually accompanies loud noises was absent without leave. My senses weren’t heightened. I did not feel the need to fight or run.
Another mentor, Vietnam veteran and Ret. Army Col. Palmer “P.J.” Pennie, of Enterprise, Alabama, walked around me, so as not to approach from behind and asked if everything was alright. I smiled and nodded.
In 2007, during the last months of my combat tour in Iraq, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would rather they told me it was cancer, small pox or some rare middle-eastern disease. At least, I might have fought a disease.
I still struggle with PTSD nearly a decade later, but at the firing range, surrounded by fellow combat veterans, I felt at ease.
of a legacy
In 2001, WALF co-founder and Vietnam veteran William “Bill” Hansen, 73, of Salt Lake City, Utah, began teaming Vietnam War combat veterans with those of more recent conflicts in a mentors/protege relationship for regular recreational outings in hopes of helping younger generations acclimate to life outside of the military.
Calling around for borrowed gear, Hansen met WALF co-founder Jon Malovich, a sales director for fly fishing supplies, who wanted to honor his Vietnam veteran father’s service.
Malovich said passion for the outdoors ran deep in his family.
I heard about WALF through the Veterans Affairs’ grapevine and sent Hansen an email expressing my interest. A few months later, I was enjoying the warm spring sun, explaining a “Wyoming breeze” to out-of-staters and not giving a damn about the nonstop gunfire at my six.
My mentor was the youngest of the group. Unlike the others, he was an Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom veteran.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Layne Morris walked with a slight hitch in his step that reminded me of an old gunfighter in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.
After twenty-odd years in service, he was deployed to Afghanistan where grenade shrapnel claimed the use of his right eye. He told me the story as a friend might tell someone about a bad fishing trip. There was no hint of regret or harbored animosity toward the enemy, simply that it was war, and it was over.
That idea is still foreign to me.
There will be more wars
After the firing range, we checked into our hotel and settled in for dinner. Hansen took the opportunity to explain to us, 14 in all, WALF’s mission and our part in continuing its legacy.
“There will be more wars,” Hansen said as heads nodded. “It will be your duty to ensure those young veterans have this organization to come home to.”
The following morning, Morris and I headed out to hunt pheasants.
I’ve never hunted before, and were it not for the hunting dogs, guides and my mentor’s encouragement, I might have left there nothing more than a well-armed bird watcher. As it happened, Morris and I killed about the same number of pheasants.
After lunch, we each hopped in a boat with a guide and spent the afternoon drifting down the North Platte River.
As it was my first time fly fishing too, my guide, Dan Hurzeler, 53, of Salmon, Idaho, coached me through casting, mending and reeling in the catch.
The wind battered our small boat, and Hurzeler spent more time untying knots in my line than he did rowing.
At the end of the ride, Hurzeler said, “Now, don’t be too quick to put off fly fishing just because of today.”
I assured him the two fish we caught and released were more than enough to keep me hooked.
Fishing and stories
Our last day was forecast to be less favorable than the previous with a slight chance of a lot worse, so no one was in a hurry to head back out to the river.
Morris and I boarded the same boat with Hurzeler as our guide. We weren’t in the water 10 minutes before I caught the first fish, a beautiful rainbow trout about 14 inches long.
To Morris’ feigned dismay, I caught another within half an hour.
The overcast sky seemed to embolden the fish, and Hurzeler tried to keep up with all the bites we failed to notice.
“Mend left, Ike,” Hurzeler said, indicating I needed to readjust the slack in my line. “Layne, hit it, hit it!”
Without the previous day’s wind, our guide was able to show us the insects on the water, so we knew what flies to use.
“Right now, midges are everywhere,” he explained, tying what I guessed must be a midge but looked like a hook wearing a feather boa.
On occasion, Morris and I talked about WALF, military life and trying to be a civilian.
“The thing you miss the most about the military is the guys,” Morris reminisced and after a pause added, “these guys understand who you are.”
Like many of the participants, Morris and I may have fought in the same war, but our stories could hardly be further apart. He came home with the physical scars of his experience, and I returned physically unscathed. Morris was a career sergeant while the military sent me home a private. He deployed to Afghanistan. I went to Iraq.
Yet on a drift boat floating down the North Platte River, we shared more in common than I’ve shared with anyone for many years. In the absence of words, we cast our lines toward the shore, and if only for a few hours, if only for a few days, our war left us in peace.