Healing Waters

Peter Nalen '79, P'13, '15 Finds Inspiration Through Helping Veterans

By Wendy Carlson

Photography by Mike MacLeod

Any fisherman worth his waders knows that when you’re waist-high in water in the middle of a river, you have about as good a chance of catching a fish as the guy next to you. It comes down to luck, perseverance, and patience.

An avid fly fisherman, Peter Nalen ’79 knew the sport was a great equalizer, but he never thought about it as a powerful healer until he became involved with Warriors and Quiet Waters (WQW), a nonprofit that seeks to help post-9/11 combat veterans successfully reintegrate into society through weeklong fly-fishing experiences in Montana.

“I have to admit, I was skeptical at first,” says Nalen, who moved in 2015 with his wife, April, from the East Coast to Bozeman, MT, where he operates Peak Advisory, a marketing company he founded. In his own life, being on the water has had a restorative effect, helping him through some rough patches: first through a difficult divorce, then a toxic split with a business partner.

Still, he wasn’t convinced that simply wading in a stream with rod and reel in hand could help veterans overcome the trauma of losing a limb, cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, or even ease their assimilation back into society.

In 2016, Nalen met retired Marine Colonel Eric Hastings, WQW’s founder, who piqued his interest. During his flight missions in Vietnam, Hastings would often look down from the cockpit and trace the meandering ribbons of water that cut through the jungle, which reminded him of the trout streams in Montana, his home state. At night, he dreamt of fly fishing. By the time Hastings returned to Montana in 1969, years before medical experts began diagnosing PTSD, he went straight to the river to fish, which, he claimed, healed him.

After raising $14,000, he founded WQW in 2007, and the first two groups of injured combat veterans arrived in Bozeman in 2008. While there are dozens of recreational programs for injured veterans, the majority of the 750 veterans who have participated in WQW since its inception have reported feeling a sense of self-confidence — and hope — for the first time in years. Nalen arranged to meet Hastings for coffee one morning. They ended up talking until 5 p.m., and Nalen walked away convinced that he wanted to get involved.

His first opportunity came last May, when he volunteered to be a fly-fishing companion to Brandon Rethmel, a 31-year-old veteran who had lost his leg and suffered a head injury while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. The experience was “utterly transformative for both of us,” says Nalen, who now serves on the organization’s national advisory board. The pivotal moment happened midweek, when Rethmel, Nalen, and a professional fishing guide traveled to a beaver pond not far from the WQW lodge, where they spotted several large brown trout swimming in the crystal clear water.

Rethmel waded in, leaning on Nalen for support in case his prosthetic leg became jammed in the mud. On Rethmel’s first cast, the three watched as a trout swam toward the fly, mouth open and poised to grab it. Instead, it shimmied past. Rethmel kept casting. On the fourth cast, the trout went for it. “It was just so exciting to watch him land that 18-inch trout, to see him hold it and measure it, and then release it back into the water,” Nalen says.

At some point during the commotion, Rethmel took Nalen’s hand and pressed it to his chest. “Do you feel that? Can you feel how fast my heart is beating?” he said. “This was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me. You’ve changed my life.” For Nalen, those few words were moving and profound. “I realized then that this isn’t just about catching a fish,” says Nalen. “It’s about learning a skill, achieving it, working with a team, and knowing you can succeed at it again and again.”

When Nalen first agreed to volunteer as a companion, he felt incredibly nervous and unsure. “I thought, ‘What do I have in common with someone who was trained for combat, who is prepared to put his life on the line not just for his men, but for us?’” he says. “I had a pretty easy life growing up. How could I be a good companion and support person to someone like that?” Fishing broke down the barriers between the two men.

“We were just two guys enjoying time out on the water,” Nalen explains. They talked about their kids, swapped bad jokes, and Rethmel opened up about his time in the military and his decision to serve. He was in ninth grade when 9/11 happened, and he knew then that he wanted to join the service. But his life took a detour when he dropped out of high school, married, and started a family.

While working as a janitor at a casino in South Carolina, he met several retired veterans in security, who regaled him with stories about all the things they had seen and done when they were in the service. Rethmel enlisted, hoping that it would provide him with a career and solid foundation for his family. Just a week into his tour in Afghanistan, he was on duty in a guard tower that was struck by a Katyusha 107mm rocket. He barely survived and spent more than a year in the military hospital before he was medically discharged in 2012. After that, his life spun out of the control, and he became more and more depressed.

“I was becoming reclusive, and I wasn’t present as a father and a husband. I more or less gave up on living and just wanted to drink and take pain medication,” he wrote in an email to Nalen.

Rethmel is one of the more than three million Americans who have served in uniform in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded, with injuries that leave both physical and emotional scars. In 2016, Rethmel started seeing a counselor and rebuilding his life — and he became a member of Operation Heroes Support, a veteran-operated nonprofit that provides outdoor opportunities for disabled veterans, which led him to WQW.

Since the week they spent on the river, Nalen and Rethmel have kept in touch. They text each other and swap fishing stories and photos. Since returning to his home outside Pittsburgh, Rethmel is planning to continue his education by enrolling in college. For Nalen, the experience proved to be the most impactful volunteer work he has done. Beyond his involvement with WQW, Nalen mentors entrepreneurs and teaches business courses as an adjunct professor at Montana State University. He also works and volunteers with Bill Bryan ’62, who founded OneMontana, a nonprofit that seeks to bridge the gap between rural and urban communities. 

For Nalen, the biggest takeaway he got from his WQW experience is a deeper respect and understanding for men and women in the armed service. Rethmel, in turn, said WQW treated him as a whole person when all too often, injured vets are viewed solely as disabled.

“We (veterans) were treated like regular people, and that goes a very long way with us,” he said. Fly fishing, meanwhile, has become a constant in his life. It’s something he can look forward to every day, a skill he can teach his kids and an activity that keeps him engaged, productive, and positive. Rethmel hopes that at least some of his fellow vets, whether their injuries are visible or invisible, have the same life-changing experience; or, as he puts it, a chance “to land that big fish — to just get out on the water and live life.”

To learn more about Warriors and Quiet Waters, contact Peter at peter@peakadvise.com or Faye Nelson at faye@warriorsandquietwaters.org.

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