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Article written by: Llyod Tackitt
One wounded veteran came up to me and said “This is great, this is wonderful, these people make me feel appreciated.” Another injured veteran smiled a huge smile and put his hand on my shoulder and said “This is the most relaxed I’ve been in two months.” They were talking about being the guests of airboaters on the Brazos River.
Families aren’t always people related by birth. Some families are people related by shared experience. One such family is that of wounded and recovering veterans. They go to a hostile land where a very large number of people are organized solely around the desire to kill them. Too many of them get killed and too many get injured. The injured come home, try to heal and fit back into a society that often seems to be purposely ignoring them. Who can they really relate to? Each other. And so they become a family.
There’s another family that reached out to them, offering a hand of decency, actively showing them that there are those that truly appreciate them. This family is known as the Brazos River Airboat Club – known as BRAB for short. This family isn’t a family of birth relatives either, this family is bound together by shared values, and some of those values are expressed in owning and operating airboats. One of those values is a true appreciation for the sacrifice our men and women in uniform make. This family, BRAB, invited these veterans out for a day of thrills riding airboats interspersed with long moments of serenity while fly fishing. The BRAB family took these wounded veterans up and down the Brazos River, between Lake Whitney and Waco. They zoomed and zipped and made these men smile, big smiles, great-big-toothy-smiles.
First Annual Brazos River Airboat
Fly Fishing Run
September 12th, 2015
Airboats shuttled from spot to spot all morning. As the veterans and the volunteer/guides fished, the BRAB members hung out talking boats and laughing. BRAB are definitely a family and they act like one. No boater gets left behind, ever. If there is a mechanical problem, and there often seem to be mechanical problems, the other boaters come running to help. Gasoline, parts, advice; it is all shared back and forth freely and with enthusiasm. They care about each other, in a family sort of way. You only have to be around them a short while to see it.At noon the airboats all gathered on a gravel bar and food was laid out on the front platforms of two of the boats and everyone lined up and chose from the grand buffet that was available. The food was outstanding, and eating outdoors in perfect weather after a morning of working up a full appetite was a rare treat.During the runs up and down the river a couple of things about airboats were learned by the veterans and volunteers. One was that airboats don’t have to run on water, they can also run on dirt and gravel. Several places along the river were too narrow and choked with brush for the airboats to go through, but no problem. The airboats went around, going over gravel bars with complete aplomb.
The other item was that an airboat leaves less wake the faster it goes. Airboats are heavy, big, and blunt. When moving slowly they settle deep and push out large waves as they bludgeon their way through the water. When moving fast they are on high plane, skimming along barely touching the water; thus leaving small ripples instead of big waves. This counter-intuitive fact of physics causes some other recreational river users some angst, as they see the airboats zipping past instead of slowing down as a kind of rudeness, while the airboaters see leaving as small of a wake as possible as a kind of courtesy. The vast majority of other folks in the river appeared to be happy to see the airboaters, waving as they went by.
BRAB members hold to a high standard of ethics that includes stopping and assisting anyone they see in distress, also working closely with the game wardens and other law enforcement in search, rescue, and recovery missions. They move as far away from other people in the river as it is possible for them to get, and pass by as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are also prone to picking up litter and taking it out with them.After lunch, more fishing until it was time to gather back where it all started. Upon arrival a delicious dinner was graciously served and later fond farewells as the veterans left for their drives back home after a day that not one of them would forget for the rest of their lives. A day of excitement at riding in airboats, peace and tranquility of fly fishing where the Brazos gave a bountiful catch, perfect weather, excellent food, but most importantly – outstanding new friends that spent a full day of showing these wounded veterans just how much they are appreciated. It is people like these; our veterans, NTXHW and BRAB - that make this the greatest country in the history of this planet.
And in between the zooming and zipping were stops at some of the most beautiful spots in America, on one of the most beautiful rivers in Texas, where the veterans eagerly took up their fly rods and softly sought the fish of the river. The gorgeous art of casting a fly has healing power. Scientifically proven, (references can be provided) studies show that fly fishing helps to rewire the brain in a way that heals stress, combat stress most especially. This is why the group that sponsors these wounded and recovering veterans is named “Project Healing Waters, North Texas.” Or NTXHW. A third family, if you will. This family is based on the shared value of finding the best way they know to help wounded veterans find peace and healing. These volunteers use the skills and tools they know, fly fishing.
Project Healing Waters is a national non-profit organization that started at Walter Reed Army Hospital. It grew rapidly from there because of its effectiveness in aiding the recovery of wounded soldiers. Only a few short years later there are chapters in all fifty of the States and multiple chapters in many of them. NTXHW, one of those chapters based in the DFW area, has been around for a bit over two years now and has already served over 300 wounded combat veterans in that time. It is a one-hundred-percent volunteer organization, no salaries, no fees, no overhead. Every penny donated is spent on the veterans it serves. The volunteers pay their own expenses and put in thousands of hours every year.
Fly fishing helps to heal, helps a lot. Veterans have been committing suicide at the rate of twenty-two per day, or one every 65 minutes. This is a dark shame on our nation. Helping veterans is no small thing. What BRAB and NTXHW have done, are doing, isn’t just riding in boats and fishing, it’s helping men and women to heal. Men and women that were injured for us, men and women that voluntarily put their lives between us and those whose sole purpose in life is to see us dead.
A large part of that healing comes from the veterans meeting and being with citizens that have a deep heart-felt gratitude for their service. Not being ignored is a very big deal. The wonderful people of BRAB made this group of veterans feel cherished and honored, and the results showed on the veteran’s faces. They came in that morning tense, shy, a bit grim. But soon there were big smiles, lots of laughter, and relaxed minds. What BRAB did for these wounded heroes is far more valuable than can be expressed in words, you have to see those smiles and hear their laughter to get the true impact.The day was Saturday, September 12, 2015. These three families came together just below Lake Whitney dam early in the morning. Greeting the wounded veterans was a flashing marquee at the top of the dam that said “Welcome Warriors and Healing Waters”.
After several weeks of high 90’s temperatures a cold front blew through the area just hours before sunrise. The high temperature for the day would only reach eighty-eight degrees, with a light wind out of the North under a cloudless blue bird sky. It was the first sign of the coming autumn after a long hot summer. The river level varies from day to day and anything but low water makes wading impossible, and fortunately the river level was low. Conditions could not have been better, conditions were perfect, everything had come together as well as they possibly could have.Airboats launched at staged intervals and the boat Captains took their riders to the most productive fishing spots they knew of, scattering and spreading out and down river. Veterans and their NTXHW volunteers/guides paired off and waded out into the river, where healing happens.
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