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2017-18 Issue V Editors' Picks National

Fishing for Solutions: Take a Vet Fishing Offers New Options for Veterans

Located in the back room of the First Baptist Church in Branford, CT is a seemingly typical art and crafts scene. Lying on tables are bright-colored feathers ranging from red to green, bits of yarn and string, and plenty of bobbins and scissors to go around. What seems out of place, though, are the fishhooks. A group of twelve veterans from the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center files in, with wide smiles on all of their faces. After they sign in at the registration desk, they find seats near one of the fly-tying instructors. Not many people fish in the winter, but it is never too early to start preparing.

Fly-tying classes are just one of the many events hosted as part of Take a Vet Fishing (TAVF). Located in Branford, CT, TAVF aims to “get veterans out of the clinical environment for a relaxing day of fishing,” according to their website. For these veterans, a day fishing, basking in the sun, and chatting with friends helps to cultivate happiness and relaxation. Although the cold weather puts a temporary stop to the fishing trips, it does not put a stop to TAVF’s mission. In the winter, TAVF organizes a variety of other events: fly-tying classes, dinners, and sports games.

Fly-tying is the process of using feathers and a fishhook to create an artificial fly, which can be used as bait. When the hook is thrown in the water, the vibrant colors attract the attention of fish and the billowing feathers look like a fly’s wings. At the fly-tying class, each veteran, with a careful and unwavering hand, starts by wrapping a spool of thread around a cluster of feathers and a hook on a vise. Within the course of an hour, each veteran has constructed at least one artificial fly.

Fly-tying is an invigorating change from the clinical environment of the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center. “You know you want to tie one,” a veteran said to me with a grin as he added more feathers to his hook.

Originally, the founders of TAVF were concerned about the fly-tying event because they did not want the veterans who were blind to become too frustrated by the difficult task. However, Jeff Buggee, one of the founders of TAVF and the current Chairman, admitted that “we [the members of TAVF] put more limitations on the blind veterans than they put on themselves. The blind vets do just as good a job on their first try as any sighted person.”

The fly-tying class has become one of the most popular events of TAVF. In an interview with The Politic, Buggee said that a volunteer once told him, “this is one of the best things you’ve ever done for vets because you’re teaching them a skill that they can use. You’re empowering them.”

None of the founders of TAVF ever anticipated the massive extent to which TAVF would benefit the CT veteran community. TAVF started out as a small outreach mission of the First Congregational Church of Branford, CT. Back in 2007, at a church event about faith, a psychiatric nurse spoke about a study she had conducted regarding PTSD of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeff Buggee was deeply moved by the nurse’s story, and his immediate thought was “there has got to be something more the church can do,” he said.

After more than 30 phone calls to the Connecticut Department of Veteran Affairs (CT VA) and numerous days of research, members of the church stumbled across an event in a different state called Take a Vet Fishing Day. They learned that many programs throughout the country bring veterans on fishing trips, in order to provide them with a pleasant day by the water, connect them with members of the community, and thank them for their service. Although these different programs are not affiliated with one another, they serve similar purposes.

The First Congregational Church owns about 50 acres of land by Long Island Sound called Killam’s Point. Members of the First Congregational Church decided to start a similar fishing program in Branford, and once the Director of Recreation at the CT VA approved the property, TAVF was established.

At a typical TAVF fishing trip, there is no shortage of food, enthusiasm, and camaraderie. Each event is free of charge, and anywhere from 60 to 120 veterans will be in attendance. Buses are sent to places such as Bridgeport Homes for the Brave, Female Soldiers Forgotten Heroes, West Haven VA, Rocky Hill VA, and homeless shelters to bring veterans to Killam’s Point. The event commences at 8am, but volunteers arrive an hour earlier to set up the fishing equipment as well as tables laden with egg sandwiches, bagels, and coffee. Veterans fish until noon, and the fun continues at a full-blown BBQ. The event usually ends around 2pm, but the impact of the trip is long-lasting. “The vets talk about TAVF for weeks,” Buggee said.

Karl Yalchulke, a veteran who frequently attends the TAVF fishing trips, says that the Branford Yacht Club event is his favorite event of the year. Once a year, the Branford Yacht Club lets TAVF use 50 or so of its boats. That way, more than 100 veterans can fish out on the water rather than standing on the shore at Killam’s Point.

“Just getting back out on the water and doing some fishing with great friends made it one of the best days of my life. Camaraderie is awesome, and these are all brothers and sisters of mine who would’ve had my back during war,” Yalchulke said in an interview with The Politic.

According to Yalchulke, TAVF events have also enriched his life by expanding his social circle. “I still keep in touch with a lot of people I have met through TAVF.”

Jeff Arnson, a current TAVF board member, has also witnessed the incredible power of a simple fishing trip. “Just getting people out of the clinical environment, away from the doctors, away from their problems is worthwhile, even if it is a short amount of time,” he explained.  “Maybe a veteran has PTSD, doesn’t interact very well, and sits on that rock far away from everybody. However, slowly but surely, he or she will begin to mingle with the crowd.”

The delight in Buggee and Arnson’s voices is contagious when they talk about the success of the program. The Branford Yacht Club event is requires a sign-up, and veterans start calling in January to sign up for the September boat trip. Additionally, all of the trout fishing trips in 2018 and 2019 are already booked.

“I’m taking schedules right now for 2020,” Arnson said.

Besides fishing trips, TAVF also organizes other recreational events for local veterans. Every year at Christmas, TAVF hosts a party where veterans enjoy a turkey and ham dinner, homemade dessert, and live music. At the end, they receive a swag bag. “For many vets,” Buggee said, “this is the only gift they are going to get.”

Connecticut universities, including Yale and Central Connecticut, also donate tickets to football or basketball games. Around 30 veterans receive free transportation to a game, where they will be provided with Jersey Mike’s subs and an afternoon of fun and entertainment.

The evolution of TAVF from a simple idea to a statewide program has surprised everyone involved, even the founders. In an interview with The Politic, Buggee described how the program has “developed a life of its own. We’re always looking at each other, wondering what can we do to make TAVF better, and we think there’s nothing. But then, something amazing will come up, like the yacht club trip.”

In April 2017, TAVF took its 5,000th veteran fishing and hopes to continue celebrating the service of veterans. The impact of TAVF will only grow as more community members learn about this program and express their compassion for those who put their lives at risk to serve our country.

Even with programs like TAVF, U.S. veterans still face numerous difficulties when they return home from service. Reintegration into civilian life requires both time and assistance, and there are many problems that need to be addressed by other organizations besides TAVF.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, 12 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. is veterans. Between 18 and 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of veterans suffer from PTSD each year, depending on the war that they served in. PTSD can lead to other problems, such as substance abuse or depression. Rehabilitation care is often necessary so that veterans can be physically and mentally prepared for re-entering society. Health care providers need to be educated on health issues that are specific to veterans. Based on statistics provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2014, more than one million veterans wanted to pursue a college education after finishing their military service.

In an interview with The Politic, Acting Commissioner of the CT Department of Veteran Affairs Thomas J. Saadi explained what he believes to be the reason behind these challenges. “Older veterans often require healthcare support because they have chronic diseases and other ailments,” he said. “Many of them worked for several years and didn’t apply for any benefits, but now they realize that these benefits are crucial to their well-being.”

Lack of knowledge is another obstacle. There are many useful services and benefits available to veterans, but the information is not widespread, according to Saadi. “There are far too many suicides and far too many substance abuse cases, simply because veterans are not connected to services soon enough,” Saadi said.

One way the CT VA is working to overcome these obstacles is through the Office of Advocacy and Assistance. This office informs veterans about state and municipal benefits and handles a quarter of CT’s pension and benefit claims. Another function is the hospital at the CT VA, which takes care of more than 100 patients with chronic disease. Additionally, for veterans who are homeless or are on the verge of becoming homeless, there is a residential facility. This third function of the CT VA houses about 125 veterans, who have access to social workers, case managers, a substance abuse program, and recreational programs.

However, it is important to note that while the CT VA has good intentions, a few of its campuses have faced criticism from the public and the press. For example, according to a 2014 CTMirror article, a VA inspector general declared that the West Haven VA hospital had dirty facilities and inadequate supervision. Additionally, an Afghanistan war veteran who interviewed for the CTMirror article said that it was very difficult to schedule an appointment with a doctor at the Newington VA. He had to wait three months for his appointment.

Over the years, the CT VA has tried to address these problems and complaints. However, veterans continue to struggle with receiving the benefits that they deserve. Controversy has surrounded the different state VAs for many years. For example, CNN discovered that 19 veterans died in 2010 and 2011 at VA hospitals because of delays in treatment. According to a 2018 Chicago Tribune article, about 50 percent  of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 still have not received the mental health benefits they need.

Some veterans, like Karl Yalchulke, have positive relationships with the VA.  “The VA is very good to me; I have no complaints,” he said. But VA scandals regarding delays in healthcare, long wait times, unreliable suicide hotlines, and more continue to appear in the news.

Therefore, community partnerships between veteran service organizations like TAVF, and state and federal Department of Veteran Affairs are valuable when it comes to tackling veterans issues. In the words of Commissioner Saadi, “TAVF is a perfect example of a partnership that helps vets; not in the traditional way of healthcare or assistance with home loans, but just providing that moral support and helping them integrate into the community.”

As TAVF board members like Jeff Arnson look to the future, they see their program positively impacting veterans throughout the U.S. “We would love to see this program go nationwide,” Arnson said.

TAVF currently has plans of starting another chapter in Rhode Island. According to Arnson, TAVF members are “communicating with a woman in RI, putting together a kit, planning on donating some equipment like fishing rods and tackles. She plans on coming to one of our spring trout fishing events so that she can talk to the van drivers and the administrators, in order to understand what it takes.”

Regardless of where the future leads, TAVF will continue fulfilling its mission in CT by sharing the excitement of fishing and brightening the lives of veterans. There will be countless sunny days by the water and lively chicken and pork BBQs. Visually impaired veterans will continue to be empowered at fly-tying classes, and veterans and volunteers will build new friendships at holiday parties.

Based on the genuine enthusiasm and passion in Jeff Buggee’s voice when he interviewed for The Politic, there is no doubt that the compassionate spirit of TAVF will spread beyond the borders of CT. In his words, “when you come fishing with us, it’s contagious.”