Saint Ambrose once said, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” That sentiment defines the work of Trout Unlimited’s Veterans Service Partnership, and was visible at the recent “couples trip” hosted by the VSP and the Friends of the Upper Delaware.

The Upper Delaware is a great, but challenging wild trout fishery. Here there be monsters. Skunks, too. For example, I caught five fish under 20-inches for the day—that is, 16 inches under 20.

Melanie’s brown

Melanie, the wife of Scott, one of the veterans on the trip, caught her fish on a fly—a 19-inch wild brown. Denise and Kevin, of the Donegal chapter in Pennsylvania, came because Bill Nolan, a veteran himself and stalwart VSP supporter, suggested they do so. 

When asked about the fishing, Kevin said “I didn’t know trout had middle fingers.” 

Bill and Jennie, fished with Lee Hartman, and caught two trout approaching 20-inches while also learning the reach cast. Doug, a long-time volunteer for the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania recounted how Jim Lanning, another great TU VSP volunteer, calls him the “air-force” because of his willingness to engage in advocacy. His spouse, Sonja chose not to go out the first day, and it may have been wise as according to Doug, all he caught was “fish slime.” The next day, Doug wrote me and said, “I caught an 8-inch brownie…my first trout while fly fishing!”

When I asked the Fowlers, who hail from the Seth Green chapter, how they did, they said, “Well, we fished from the same boat,” and broke into laughter—something that was clearly routine.

I asked Lee why he had volunteered to help guide the veterans and their spouses. He told me about a good friend who served in Vietnam and came home with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He died from drinking. Fishing was his only respite. Eventually, he drank himself to death,” Lee said. “We just didn’t have anything like this back then.”

Every angler intuitively knows the healing power of running water. Through the Veterans Service Partnership, Trout Unlimited works with organizations such as TAPS, Rivers of Recovery, Project Healing Waters, Wounded Warrior Project, and Higher Ground Sun Valley—the list goes on—to help wounded veterans, and their families, to heal.    

More than 200 TU chapters participate in the Veterans Service Partnership. My brother, Emmett, who works for VSP-supporter, Telos, and I started the VSP eight years ago over a bottle of wine and a pizza. TU chapters were already helping other organizations work with wounded veterans. Our idea was to expand the opportunities for outreach to more veterans and more military families.

The brainchild of the couples’ trip was Dave Kumlien and Peter Moskovitz. Dave was one of the founders of Warriors and Quiet Waters in Montana. After an outing on the Madison River, one of the veterans remarked, “I wish we could bring our wives. They would love this.”

Dave took the idea to heart and has led a couples’ trip in Montana for six straight years. The idea to bring the concept to the Upper Delaware was Peter’s.  

In the past decade or so, thousands of veterans and their families have benefited from heading to the river or learning to tie flies with TU volunteers. Less expected was how many would join our chapter community and become volunteer leaders. Veterans are mission- and purpose-driven people. Trout Unlimited provides them with an outlet to serve and a community to participate.

When we finished dinner on my last night, Scott and Melanie took me to their cabin and gave me a handmade turkey call. Scott and his sons started a new business called Dunn and Son’s Turkey Calls.

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate what you have done for me and Melanie,” he said. “We will never forget this.”

And, we will never stop returning our thanks to Melanie, Scott, and all our nation’s veterans, spouses, and military families.

Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. He works from our Arlington, Va., headquarters.