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Veterans Heal, Bond While Fly Fishing Chama River

  • By Richard Mark Glover Special to the SUN  Oct 21, 2021 Updated Oct 29, 2021

A dozen combat veterans stood Oct. 16 along the banks of the Chama River on Trout Stalkers Ranch near Chama. Fly rods in hand, some mid-cast, delivered the Frenchie and other flies to the trout below.

U.S. Marine Corp Sergeant (Ret.) Wes Dyer, of AWOL Angler, arranged the gathering as part of what’s known as “Veterans Outdoor Therapy.”

“We come from a hard-charging place,” Dyer said. “Every effort in combat is 120 percent. And then we transcend back to the civilian world. But we’re not civilians anymore. We’re veterans of war.”

He looked out across the Chama River toward the snow-peaked mountains.  “We’re veterans,” He repeated. “We’re veterans with our depression, our suicides. We lose direction and then we ask, ‘What do I do now?’”

The genesis of AWOL Angler spun out of that dilemma.  “I started the non-profit in 2018,” Dyer said. “Wanted to get my guys in a shinier light, spread comradery by doing something outside.”

He stopped and watched the unbent fly rods in the distance.  “It might be a little cold yet,” he said.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for post 9/11 veterans. Approximately 17 suicides occur among this group every day, according to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.  Veterans aged 55 to 74 were the largest population subgroup. They accounted for 38 percent of veteran suicide deaths in 2019.

“It’s up to us to take care of us,” Dyer said. “Who would be better?”

All the veterans who come to AWOL Angler events attend for free.  “We had a nation-wide focus before COVID,” he said “(We) brought in vets from Alabama, Texas. But after COVID, we pretty much focus on New Mexican vets and almost all our fishing is up here in Northern New Mexico.”


Alone with their thoughts

Stephen Daniel, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant who deployed three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, cast a blue fly into the air.

“Fly fishing gives me an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts,” Daniel said. “It’s a safe place to be alone with your thoughts. Sometimes being alone with your thoughts is not a good thing, but out here it’s OK.”

Bad thoughts can be displaced by fly-fishing.

“Our primary purpose is to teach them the art of fly fishing,” Dyer said. “But it’s more than that. Fly fishing is a difficult thing to do. It takes all your attention. Lots of things come together to get a fish to take a fly.”

Dyer believes there are three fundamental things to be happy: finding someone to love, finding something to do and having something to look forward to.

“We talk about new horizons—overlaying purpose to create something new, to embed their minds,” he said. “Fishing takes major space.”

Mike Lizzi, a retired Army combat engineer, now with two children, a wife and several businesses, including real estate sales and non-emergency ambulance transport, is also on the Board of AWOL Angler. He relaxed near the water’s edge.

“It’s a way to give back to my veteran family,” he said. “Fortunately, I found my spark after war. Now I’d like to inspire others.”

Jason Duncan, also on the Board and a sponsor, laughs at the incredibly beautiful landscape enhanced by the yellow glow of Aspen leaves.

“Trout don’t live in ugly places,” he said.

Dyer, who was caught in a 25-hour fire fight with the Taliban in an Afghanistan IED minefield, suffered spinal and skull fractures in 2009, when his truck hit a device. 

He wrote a few years later, “I believe the greatest tragedy in existence, is to be offered the gift of life not only once but twice and not live to the very wildest of its potential.”

By mid-day fly rods were bending. The trout were warming up.




Faces of CNM: Wes Dyer

A former Marine and IED detection dog handler, Wes is now a CNM business major who’s built a successful company that uses fly fishing to help veterans


Jul 06, 2020

Day after day during his 2009 deployment in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Sergeant Wes Dyer and his black lab Lottie would head out into the field to find and disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most of the time they were successful. But sometimes they weren’t.

Five separate times Wes was involved in an explosion. Twice—in August and October—he was critically injured (Lottie was ok). After suffering back and head injuries, he was sent home and began the difficult task of transitioning back to civilian life.

That transition is one that many veterans struggle with, which has resulted in far too many suicides. Wes says he struggled, too, after being diagnosed with both Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).


Wes, left, with Lottie.


Then, however, Wes returned to fly fishing—a sport he’d done for years before the war—and he says the sport helped save his life.

“Fly fishing helped me refocus and gave me an outlet to offload all my problems and my angst,” he says. “I was immediately happier and felt like I was once again living a purposeful life.”

Knowing the sport could help other veterans as well, Wes became a certified guide and decided to create a fly fishing non-profit. He named it AWOL Angler, and for the past three years he’s been working with vets from New Mexico, or flying in vets from other states free of charge, and taking them on exclusive, guided fly fishing trips throughout the state.

“We come out of the services with a lot of challenges and a lot on our minds, and fly fishing is great because it gives these vets the opportunity to be singularly minded about what’s happening right in front of them instead of worrying about everything else. There isn’t a lot of room in your mind for other things when you’re out fishing. You have to be present,” Wes says.

“My hope is that I can share the peace and tranquility this sport tends to bring, and perhaps send these veterans back to their hometowns, armed with a new healthy pastime to chase.”

Wes got the business off the ground himself, but knew he needed help to make it grow. And that’s where CNM comes in. He enrolled in the college’s business program two years ago and plans to graduate in 2021. Then he plans to transfer to a university to pursue a bachelor’s degree and eventually a master’s.

CNM, he says, taught him important fundamentals. Instead of trying to piece together a business plan on his own, Wes says he was able to learn what he needed to keep the business moving and better serve his clients.

"Instead of doing guess work, I’m getting real advice from real professionals at CNM,” Wes says. “When I go to learn something from someone, I want the best and I want a professional and that’s absolutely what I’m getting here at the college.”

So far Wes has worked with more than 20 veterans clients and he wants to keep growing. The plan is to eventually build a network of ranches around the country—not just here in New Mexico—where Wes and other AWOL guides can take veterans fishing. 

“I want to use what I have to help others, and with fishing, the sky's the limit,” he says.





Healing waters: Local guide introduces fellow veterans to fly-fishing

CHAMA — “There. Right there.”

Wes Dyer sets his gaze on the far side of a riverbank where a collection of rocks lurch eerily out of the undulating current. He studies the flow of the water until he finds one spot that is sure to hide a 20-inch rainbow trout.

“There,” he says again self-assuredly as he points his index finger in the direction of his focus. “Let’s start there.”

Dyer, 32, a fly-fishing guide at the Reel Life in Santa Fe — replete with waders and boots, gear strapped to his back, plus a fly rod — marches forward into the watery abyss like the true soldier that he is.

His student for the day, 32-year-old Ryan Birdsell of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a retired U.S. Marine on a two-day, all-expense-paid retreat. Birdsell follows closely behind.

Dyer also is a retired Marine, a former bomb dog handler and member of the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. The military gave him a purpose, a sense of camaraderie, that he missed after he retired.

And yet, being out on the water in pursuit of an unforgiving and at times elusive opponent makes him feel like he’s in his element. He often talks about his life before he began to fly-fish and after as two separate epochs in his personal history.

That total night-and-day transition led to a desire to help others find that path, too — especially returning military veterans.

“When I returned from the war, I was in bad shape,” Dyer said. “I was that hard-hearted man when I came back from combat.”

When Dyer arrived in New Mexico, he was working in the northern part of the state as a water utilities contractor. Then he thought he’d try his hand at guiding in Montana. He spent two years there before coming back to the Southwest.

Many returning vets, Dyer said, have a difficult time readjusting to civilian life after witnessing the destruction in a war-torn country. The Department of Veterans Affairs has programs to help, he agrees, but it could do more.

In the interim, Dyer founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, AWOL Angler, that aims to help veterans latch onto an activity that will help them reacclimate to society. Starting the organization was a way for him to give back after finding what could be called a godsend for him.

Since 2017, when he first put pen to paper, he has devoted his time and attention to get AWOL up and running. So far, the organization has secured some key sponsorships with local organizations, including the owner of the Reel Life, Ivan Valdez; the owners of Buffalo Thunder Resort; and the governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, Joseph Talachy. Southwest Airlines provides complimentary round-trip tickets to AWOL veteran guests. And the owners of the Trout Stalker Ranch in Chama open their guest ranch to Dyer and his students for lodging and, of course, fishing.

When the guests are in New Mexico, “they don’t open their wallets for anything,” Dyer said.

“We’re here to do anything we can for our vets,” Valdez said. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them, so the best thing we can do is make sure that we take care of them.”

Dyer is a former Marine who served in Afghanistan. ‘When I returned from the war, I was in bad shape,’ he said.

AWOL handpicks veterans to participate in the program. They fly to Albuquerque, where Dyer gives them a lift to Santa Fe. There, they get fitted for boots and waders and are furnished with a rod and reel. Then they spend the night at Buffalo Thunder in Pojoaque. Next, they set out early in the morning for Chama, where the Trout Stalker Ranch welcomes them to their new home for a few days.

“Doctors are starting to prescribe nature as an alternative to traditional medicines,” said ranch co-owner Ashlyn Perry. “When you are fly-fishing, you are so focused that some of those worldly problems disappear. You’re able to forget them momentarily.”

Perry and her husband, Dan, grant Dyer and his guest unfettered access to the ranch’s mile-long stretch of the Chama River for one of the two days. On the second day, they explore other parts of the river.

“He’s very enthusiastic,” Perry said of Dyer. “He has this passion for helping other veterans. And I want to support our veterans, too. It makes me happy to see them so happy.”

“Wes is a rare breed,” Birdsell added. “And everyone at the ranch has the same enthusiasm, the same care in their hearts.”

So far, Dyer has taken two separate parties up to Trout Stalker, the first such trips since starting AWOL, but he’s hoping to expand the program to include more guests and perhaps even longer trips.

“I’d like to see this become nationwide,” he said.

People in the military say a soldier never leaves another soldier behind. Wes Dyer seems determined to do just that.

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