Maureen Brown's eyes dance when she recalls "the beauty" of catching her first rainbow trout. The retired Army nurse will never forget it because, as she reeled in the 24-inch fish two years ago, her exhilaration for a moment broke the mental shackles of her post-traumatic stress disorder.
Brown since has become a leader of Veterans First Fly Fishing, a program that uses the recreational activity to aid veterans with PTSD and steer them on a path to self-sufficiency.
Brown, a Menlo Park resident, and Ken Brunskill, a Navy veteran from Fremont, teach men and women at several Bay Area Veterans Affairs hospitals about the small but crucial steps required to tie a fly.
"That thrill of creating that small fly that entices a fish to bite, then making the catch and letting it go, is the most fun thing," said Brown, who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. "It's just you and nature; it's so soothing -- everything just goes away."
The instructors take their pupils on outings that allow them to enjoy the serene, naturally beautiful rural settings and other draws of fly-fishing that have hooked Brown and Brunskill on the sport. The experience also provides veterans something basic they haven't felt in too long: a sense of accomplishment.
Catching even a small fish can be a big deal for those with PTSD, said Melissa Puckett, the Menlo Park VA hospital's recreation therapist supervisor. "Just going to the grocery store can become an anxiety-ridden experience," Puckett said. "So we're looking for avenues for people to work through those anxiety-provoking situations and have a better quality of life."
The VA describes PTSD as a mental health problem that can occur after a person goes through a life-threatening event, which describes a soldier's near-daily existence during combat. About 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 percent of Iraq War veterans have PTSD. Nearly 8 million Americans have been diagnosed with the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Symptoms include becoming easily frustrated or angry; uneasiness or hypervigilance around crowds; impatience with ordinary chores; and becoming emotionally numb, Puckett said. Many people who have PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol.
"They're stuck in a little prison of their own mind," she said. "It's a powerful thing."
Brown, 62, said she knows the feeling. Her 32-year military career started in 1971, in the waning days of the Vietnam War, and ended in 2003, just as the Iraq War was beginning. One of her memories is caring for a 19-year-old soldier who had shot himself in the stomach in a desperate attempt to escape combat during Operation Desert Storm. She said other soldiers thought of him as a "deserter," and he was ostracized and later sent home.
"I don't think this kid ever thought about the notion of shooting another human being," she said. "So many kids enter the service as a way out of poverty, and they get in a situation where they have no idea what's going to be required of them."
Brown said today's military is more enlightened about mental health issues but, during her career, superiors looked down on those who admitted to hurting emotionally. "So you end up stuffing it down, and you don't deal with it," she said. "When you come back home, it's hard to find anyone who understands what you've gone through."
Brown was diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, after the sudden deaths of four family members and news that her grown daughter was diagnosed with a major illness. "The doctors think my PTSD stems from Desert Storm, and it culminated with those other stressors," she said. "Anything that happens to you in the military starts to add up over time."
She was being treated at the Menlo Park VA hospital when she found out about the fly-fishing program, which helped her recover from depression. "A big part of it was the fly tying; it allowed me to focus on something beside myself," she said. "It may seem simple, but if you have PTSD, having the focus to do that is very difficult, and being able to be relaxed and have a good time is everything."
Once they taste that positive experience, the veterans are encouraged to translate it into other parts of their lives. For Brown, that meant teaching wounded soldiers and trying to heal them by building a community of fly fishers who act as a support group for each other.
She and Brunskill hold classes twice a month at VA hospitals in Livermore and Menlo Park and monthly in San Jose. They receive support from the nonprofit Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers.
Brown recalls a recent trip to Donner Lake with about 15 classmates, when one veteran with PTSD was overjoyed about catching a footlong rainbow trout by himself.
"His face lit up with a radiance I had never seen before, and all he did was talk about what he had done," she said. "If you can get them to have that feeling, that's what it's all about."