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About 26 miles outside of Auburn, Calif., lies the Horseshoe Bar Preserve.
It’s a fly fishing camp along the Middle Fork of the American River. It’s a beautiful and historic spot. Gold miners blasted a hole in the mountainside and diverted the American River through it. Local rafters call it "Tunnel Chute." Every year at the mouth of "Tunnel Chute," a group of veterans come here to camp for a few days.
The former service members come from all walks of life, and all branches of the military. Every one of the men and women who join this fishing trip are struggling with something internally. The goal of the trip is to allow veterans to talk with one another about what's weighing on their minds.
You can think of it as peer-to-peer counselling, but, if you ask the veterans, they would tell you it’s just a bunch of like-minded people trying to fly fish.
I say "try" because most of the veterans have never gone fly fishing before. Generous donors outfit the veterans with fly fishing gear and some very kind fishing guides teach the veterans to fish.
The veteran fly fishing trip is normally reserved for veterans only, but this year I was invited to join them. I've been a television journalist for over 10 years, and I've done a number of stories on veterans, some happy, some sad. This story was different. This story really made me think.
On this story, I didn't ask vets to tell war stories. I didn't ask them to about their patriotism, nor did I ask them to show their emotions. On this story, I listened. I had a conversation with a group of people who were fishing, and the rest of this article is a compilation of thoughts or comments from a few people on that trip.
First up is Nicholas Walsh, a Navy Veteran who served in Afghanistan, among other places.
"You can't go from Afghan to Home Depot and be like... 'oh, I am good'... it doesn't work that way," says Walsh. "I honestly didn't struggle with mental health stuff for a long time because I, quite frankly, I was drinking. When I got sober is when I started dealing with it because I was masking things for years."
Walsh is a heavy set man in his mid-to-late 30s. He is a father and struggled with homelessness for a while.
"I didn't tell my wife anything. We were married for 10 years," says Walsh.
Substance abuse is one of Walsh's biggest struggles. He says he doesn't see his wife or kid much, but thanks to a therapist from the Veterans Affairs, he's on a good path.
Unfortunately, however, Walsh says that therapist no longer works for the VA.
"Programs like Wounded Warrior and fishing here at Horseshoe Bar takes up a lot of the slack that the VA can't do," says Walsh. "My friends, the other guys that I run around with, I see their growth only when they are with other people. Isolation, loneliness... those are the killers."
Marine veteran Ian Dollar is a fireman. He served in Fallujah and a few other places from 2004 to 2008.
"Whenever you talk about stuff like this, like I am talking to you right now, it's hard. It's just mentally exhausting to hash all the memories back up and just go through it piece-by-piece and remember it in vivid detail," says Dollar.
The former marine is 32 years old, tall and lean with blond hair and a buzz cut. He bounced around with friends for a while after he was discharged.
"You got buddies that don't make it home, but you do. Then, all of a sudden, you are home surrounded by your old friends again and you are confused because you don't know how you made it back, but you did and you are confused on why you made it home."
Dollar eventually landed a firefighting job in Hayward.
"You try and explain everything, and you have a million stories, and you try and tell the good ones, but eventually the bad one pops up."
Dollar said he has a good group of friends, but few can relate with what he experienced in the military. He says this is a problem for a lot of vets.
"People all come from good intentions and we know that. It's just that we get tired of telling them the same story."
Michael Crescitelli is a retired Master Sergeant. He spent 26 years in the Army.
"In some areas, veterans have access. In some areas they don't. It's hit-or-miss. It's kind of like fishing," says Crescitelli.
Asking for help is one thing. Getting help is another. Crescitelli traveled the world for the Army. Today he travels long distances for an appointment at Veterans Affairs office.
"You don't know who you are going to see next. You don't know when you are going to get an appointment, and it's hard for them (Veterans Affairs) because they have to see so many people."
Crescitelli is picking up fly fishing pretty well. His cast is as smooth as his freshly-shaven face. He's not flashy. He's an average height with a green ball cap, and takes directions from the fishing guide well. He is the kind of guy who carefully chooses his words.
"Most of the time, you feel like no one even knows you exist as a veteran, and it’s not like you want special treatment."
Crescitelli is not the kind of guy who complains, and when he talks about Veterans Affairs he doesn't complain. He speaks truth.
"Everyone has to be taken equal, no matter where you live. That’s all. We have good people that work there (Veterans Affairs). They are wonderful. There is just not enough of them," says Crescitelli.
On this fishing trip, veterans spoke to ABC10. They didn't complain, they didn't lay blame on anyone, and they didn't get mad.
On the next fishing trip, the veterans open up. And we listened to what they had to say. Next time a veteran speaks to you, hopefully you listen, too.
Continue the conversation with John Bartell on Facebook.
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