How One Man is Helping Veterans and Inner City Youth Heal with Fly Fishing

We are all shaped by our experiences in life. What we choose to do with those experiences defines who we are. Chad’s experiences in life have not been all peachy. He has had some dark times, and has suffered a great deal. What he chose to do with these experiences is what makes him the strong, admirable and respectable individual he is. Regardless of our experiences, we get to pick who we want to be.

Founder and president of Soul River Inc., Chad is a decorated US Navy veteran. After his service, during the Desert Storm Gulf War and operations in Somalia he was awarded multiple honors. Today, Chad fights a mental battle with PTSD. This mental fight has affected Chad in every aspect of his life. After his return from war he was homeless, suicidal, and his fight with PTSD seemed eternal.

About 9 years ago, during one of Chad’s darkest times, his friend introduced him to fly fishing. After hitting the local fly shop, he got set up with his first rod, a St. Croix, and headed out to the water. During this time, he was attending group therapy, he was on heavy medication and he visited doctors on a regular basis. To this day Chad remembers being out in the water for the first time and feeling the river wash away his worries and his illness. To his surprise, he hooked up onto a Jack Salmon; he was immediately drenched in happiness, he was stoked, excited and he could feel his medication ooze out of his pores, driven out by the happiness and joy that catching that fish had filled him with.

Following this life-changing experience, Chad headed back to the doctor who told him what we all hoped to hear a doctor say, “keep fishing, don’t stop”. Over the next weeks and months, fishing took over Chad’s life. If he wasn’t out on the water fishing, he was building rods, and leaders, tying flies or thinking about it. The way fishing was impacting Chad’s life slowly allowed him to ease off the medication. As any other rookie, most of the time Chad didn’t even know what he was doing, but he knew one thing was for sure, he had found the healing power of nature through fly fishing and he did not intend to stop. He didn’t care if he was doing it right or wrong, he was learning as he was going and it made him feel alive again, he had a purpose in life.

Many may think of fishing as a lonely, quiet activity. But soon Chad realized that was not the case. He started making friends out on the water. Unconditional friends that became his mentors in and out of the water. Before making these friendships, Chad was simply chasing fish, after making these friendships he was connecting to the fish. Not just by hooking on to more fish but by understanding their needs, their environment, and the risks they faced. “In all honesty”, he said, “80% of the time I  was out there with my friends it was about learning, chatting, conversing.” He, carefully, would absorb everything his friends had to say. He learned about the history of the wild salmon and about the importance of conservation and preservation of nature. His mentor would teach him how to spey cast, about community, about conservation and giving back to nature. But most importantly, how to use nature as a platform for healing. He, unconditionally, absorbed everything his friend had to teach him. Unknowingly, at the time, Chad’s mentor was teaching him how to heal himself, how to employ the healing attributes of nature. Later he realized that this healing attribute can be shared with others. By sharing and by creating a sense of community he strengthens the healing power of nature. He had found a magical potion and Chad was determined to share it with those who needed it the most.

Chad’s inseparable buddy, closest confidant, and biggest anchor in his life is Axe. Axe is a service dog that never leaves Chad’s side, almost as if taking a piece of nature with him everywhere he goes. Whether he is delivering a speech in D.C. to at-risk kids and veterans, or educating a group of young leaders in the Arctic Circle, Axe is by his side. Axe first came to Chad’s life through a dog training program based out of Vancouver, WA. After a two-year wait, Chad received a call; they had a dog for him to meet and possibly train with. After filing endless paperwork and making numerous calls, Chad finally made it up to the trainer’s office in Vancouver, where she asked him to wait while she brought the dog. As Chad waited for their return he could hear Axe’s little paws approaching. He felt like he was on a first date and they were about to meet for the first time.

The moment Chad had been waiting for, for over two years was behind the door and, when the trainer came in, Axe and Chad immediately bonded and hugged. Chad started crying, Axe licked his face, the trainer started crying – overall, for everyone, it was a very ecstatic moment. It was the start of a long, unconditional friendship. The trainer had many rules, but one was very simple, “if you can’t make the time to come up and train with Axe, you don’t need Axe.”

Even though Axe had already been trained for over 350 hours, Chad had to train with him for different situations. He had to train on how to give Axe commands; how to work with him in public areas; in restaurants, and on public transport; how to be with him in vehicles, trains, planes, etc. The “adoption/training” process was very thorough, Chad had accepted Axe; but now it was time for Axe to accept Chad. However, overall, it was smooth sailing for the inseparable duo.

Axe, being a professional service dog, can pick up on Chad’s emotional triggers; those that sound the alarm that Chad is not handling his inner battle well. Sometimes, at the end of the day, Chad has a hard time shutting off and Axe picks up on this, rising to the occasion and soothes Chad, allowing him to let go and shut off for the day. As if by magic, Axe can bring Chad back down to reality. One of Chad’s PTSD conditions is terrible nightmares. Axe knows when these are happening and knows to wake him up and calm him down. “One look at Axe and I know I am safe. Phenomenal dog. Best decision, easily, I’ve ever made in my life.”

So, what is magically therapeutic about fly fishing?
“There is something magical about fly fishing, Usually, especially in the pacific northwest, fly fishing takes you to remote, mystical areas, surrounded by the majestic size of nature’s beauty. One must surrender to nature and the healing nature of the wilderness. We are used to organized and structured environments in society and cities. By surrendering to nature, we expose ourselves. This humbles us and makes us uncomfortable. This leads to opening and letting go, which in return translates to healing of the soul. This bring you back full circle to the ground, surrendering to space.”

Mission: Soul River Inc.

A lot of people tend to forget about at-risk inner-city youth and veterans. Through Soul River Inc. Chad bridges both worlds and creates a platform through which they can both help themselves by helping each other. The organization needs both demographics to function; there exists a perfect balance.

Inner city at-risk youth, just like veterans, fight a battle. When veterans come back home they hang their uniforms, but the fight continues, their battle is very relatable to the fight inner-city youth face. The organization allows both children and veterans to punch through their inner struggles and make lasting bonds.

The concept behind Soul River Inc. is to reach out to these demographics that have handicaps and doubts and give them the opportunity to get out in the water- an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise get – and absorb nature, allowing it to get the pain, the illness, the medication, the anxiety, the stress, and all the negativity out of their pores and then work on building themselves into outdoor leaders for tomorrow!

Soul River Inc. is a platform where veterans and youth are held at the same level. When Chad is recruiting veterans to join his organization he doesn’t have to preach to them, beg them to come help themselves. He goes up to them and says I need you to help mentor these young minds. The healing, the therapy, it all comes automatically when they accept to work with the kids. It’s a give and take, and the veterans soon realize that what comes out is equal to what they put in; it is fulfilling and healing to help the youth.

After many deployments to remote areas with unique groups of veterans and kids, Chad witnesses the formation of bonds and friendships he never thought possible. Eyes brimming with tears, he witnesses the hardest goodbyes he could ever hear anyone say. These are natural bonds. They’re not forced or jammed; they just happen, enabled all along by nature.

Chad wants to grow Soul River Inc. It’s not done yet, he wants to extend to as many communities as possible. The more people benefit from the organization the better. Inner city youth very rarely get the chance to go to nature. Inner city parents with broken homes can’t afford expensive camping trips for their kids. Some of these kids have never held a fishing rod, walked across a river or seen deer, bear, or any wildlife for that matter. Chad wants to make the Soul River Inc. program available to as many kids as possible, for zero cost.

Be sure to check out this video documenting the project and its amazing impact on youth and veterans!

If you would like to learn more about what Chad and Soul River Inc. are doing you can do so here:

Soul River Inc.:

Soul River Runs Deep:

Chad’s Instagram: @_chadbrown_

Soul River Instagram: @soulriver_runsdeep

All pictures used in the article were taken and are copyrighted by Chad Brown

Daniel Sanabria is a Flylords contributor and intern. Check him out on Instagram @mightypeanaught!

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