A time to heal

By MARTIN J. KIDSTON - IR Features Writer - 05/20/07

ULM - The last boat drifted around the last bend on the Smith River when the film crew lowered the boom over J.R. Salzman's head. The wounded soldier stood in waders on the river's bank, talking about his prosthetic arm and how his father built the device to help him grip and cast a fishing rod.

Salzman held his arm at a right angle from his body, clutching the fishing rod in a titanium claw where his hand once was. A roadside bomb severed his arm from the elbow down. It also took the thumb and index finger from his left hand, which he covers with a woolen mitten.

"It was December 19, 2006, at 22:17 - I remember the moment like it was yesterday," Salzman said. "But it's a new life now. Each task you learn teaches you to be more independent."

Salzman, a former member of the Minnesota National Guard, was one of eight combat veterans selected to participate in this year's Smith River trip. The float, arranged through the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project, works in partnership with Disabled Sports USA.

The unique collaboration takes combat veterans down the Smith River to soothe their minds, build their confidence, and reinvigorate their love for life. Mike Geary, owner of Lewis and Clark Expeditions, a guide company based in Helena, helped arrange the trip three years ago after watching an HBO special on disabled veterans.

"I contacted HBO and told them we could raise the money if they could send us veterans," Geary said. "This helps build a bridge to get them back. The therapy gets them started, but it's what they do after that that counts."

Geary tugged the rafts from the water, the rubber skins glistening in the warm May light. Stoneflies and San Juan worms worked magic in the tumbling water. So did the mayflies, cadis flies and wooly buggers.

After finding his land legs, Dave Folkerts, an Army engineer from Nebraska, packed his rod and reel. It was 2005 when shrapnel from an IED punctured his left arm, severing vital nerves and leaving his hand partially paralyzed.

With the sun at his back and the dark waters bubbling past, Folkerts looked strangely at his hand, as if it was both part and foreign to his body. He can move the hand slightly, but not enough to use it.

"Trips like this allow you to realize that what happened in the past…," Folk paused to collect his thoughts.

"The first year I went through a lot of depression," he continued, wiggling his fingers. "Then I realized that I'd be stuck with this for the rest of my life. You can't change what happened. Now I know I love living life."

The chatter on the bank rang loud and spirited, the camaraderie strong. Dogs roamed the underbrush, soaking wet with wagging tails. The sun pushed high into the blue Montana sky. Like the last day of summer camp, the men lingered to savor the moment.

The Smith River is prized among outdoor enthusiasts, and permits are hard to get. Montana FWP awards a limited number of permits to float the river each year through a lottery system. Winners often boast about their permit as if they'd won the Powerball drawing.

This year, Geary's flotilla included nine boats and around 20 people. FWP waived the $1,500 recreation fee for the annual vet trip. Park Avenue Bakery donated bread and treats, and the Sanders House Bed and Breakfast donated lodging before and after the trip. Without donations like that, Geary said, the trip wouldn't be possible.

"We pay for their plane tickets - we pay for everything," added Trapper Badovinac, an avid Montana fly fisherman and author of two books on the topic. "Geary and I go around during the winter and try to get fly-fishing clubs to sponsor a veteran for the trip. Geary hits up the East Coast guys and I hit up the West Coast guys."

Badovinac, who served in the Navy between 1968 and 1972, wanted to create a more positive atmosphere for today's veterans than his peers faced after Vietnam. He helped raise $20,000 for the trip before manning the oars - navigating the currents and pausing where the water fell slack.

Down by the river, Rob Creel, a member of Trout Unlimited and a longtime river guide, gazed at the cold, fast water through dark sunglasses. He donated his time as a guide to take the men down the winding river.

"The way I look at it, they've given life and limb, so the least I can do is donate my time," Creel said. "We had a blast. It's just a worthwhile program."

The veterans staged their gear in the shade of a cottonwood tree, ready to roll home after logging 60 miles on the swollen river.

T. J. Smith, from Plentywood, only caught one fish during the five-day float. The former soldier with the 1-163rd Infantry Battalion, Montana National Guard, grinned and shook his head, thinking more about the friends he made than the fish he didn't land.

"I feel like I'm leaving some really good friends," he said. "Even though I got wounded, there were guys on this trip who were wounded worse than I was. I thought I got hit bad, but I was fortunate. It was humbling to be here with these guys."

Smith pulled aside his T-shirt, revealing the shrapnel scars he received in the war. He still carries flakes of metal under his skin.

Yet like the others, Smith saw fishing the river and floating its canyons as a way to soothe his mind. Those who came before him know the river's power to mend even the deepest wounds.

"It helps you get more familiar with your prosthesis," said Derrick Hurt, a 29-year-old veteran from Missouri. "It makes you realize you can still do anything you want. Going down the river is therapeutic. It's a good confidence booster."

Hurt served as a scout sniper in Iraq until he was ambushed and wounded on Sept. 13, 2003. The grenades landed on the floorboard of his Humvee. He spent 13 months recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed.

But in 2005, Geary invited Hurt on the first Smith River float. Hurt was hooked and has returned every year since, helping lead the trip while seeing other wounded veterans through the voyage.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to like fly fishing, being on the river, or rowing a boat," Hurt said. "But we caught loads of fish. The scenery, the people, and just being outdoors on the river - it's beautiful."

The trip wasn't all fishing and floating. At night, the men sat around the campfire drinking beer. Dinners included steak, fish, pork loins and ribs. They tasted different wines, told stories, and talked abut their experience in the war.

Their part in that war changed lives, including their own. History will view their deeds in its own light, and their experience will undoubtedly shape a generation, just as the river shaped the land.

"Something as simple as taking a few guys down the river can be such a beautiful thing," said filmmaker Ed Nachtrieb, who documented the trip on high definition cameras. He hopes to air the film on HBO. "In general, the past five days showed the resiliency of the human spirit."

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 447-4086, or at mkidston@helenair.com