This story featured in the 2013 Kayak Fish issue.
By Megan Hughes
It’s a painting in my memory—a single, significant moment of my husband’s journey. A few street lamps cast a surreal glow in the dark, early morning fog. Ollie barely looked at me as I dropped him off and helped with his gear. He didn’t tell me goodbye; he didn’t kiss me. As I drove away, I looked back at him planted in the middle seat of the white passenger van. The van’s interior lights highlighted his hunched form. His jaw was set and I could feel his scowl even though it was hidden by his ball cap. No one else was in the van yet, but he was ready. He was a man on a mission. He was a man going fishing.
Heroes on the Water runs a 10-week program for wounded warriors recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. As an avid kayak fisherman, it was a perfect first post-injury outing for my husband.
When Ollie returned from his first Afghanistan deployment in 2009, he bought a fishing kayak. Many of the guys coming home were buying motorcycles and sports cars, so I was quite supportive of the expenditure. On Saturday mornings he’d load the ‘yak on our little Toyota Corolla and head off to the lake by himself. He was always more relaxed when he returned from those early morning fishing trips. During his second deployment, he’d daydream about fishing just to keep himself sane. I used to draw lakes and kayaks on his care packages to remind him what he had to look forward to at home.
The night they called to tell me he’d been wounded, I paced our back patio for hours, making phone calls and arrangements. His kayak was there in the back yard, its outline visible in the porch light. Each time it caught my eye I wondered, “Will he ever be able to go out on the water again?”
Eight hours after the notification phone call, I was informed of the nature of his injuries: His left leg had been traumatically amputated below the knee and his right leg was crushed. He was in a medically induced coma and his condition status was, “Very Seriously Injured.” He would be flown to Landstuhl, Germany, and eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Four chaotic days after he was blown up, I left my home in the middle of the night to meet him at Walter Reed.
Our reunion was a joyous event. Within days, though, the pain took its toll. Ollie was caught up in an interminable cycle of surgeries, blood transfusions, recovery from anesthesia, and bouts of extreme pain. Despite the drugs and nerve blocks, at times the pain was so overwhelming that he lost control of himself, screaming in agony, pounding the wall with his fists, begging me to cut off his remaining leg to provide some relief from the 19 broken bones in his right leg and foot. Leaving his side—even for food or rest—made my knees go weak. I often wondered whether we would ever live outside those walls again.
One afternoon I was waiting for an elevator. When the door opened I stood in stunned silence. A double amputee stepped out of the elevator. A kayak was thrown over his shoulder. A man. Two prosthetic legs. Carrying a kayak. In an elevator. In a hospital. At that moment, I knew that things were eventually going to be okay. Ollie will be able to go out on the water again.
He didn’t quite believe it yet. In those days, I’m not sure he believed in the existence of anything outside of that hospital room.
The fishing trip came several months later. First, there was a lot more pain, more surgeries, a cross-country move, and a reunion with our children. Ollie struggled with his dependence on me and others—not only was he mostly unable to walk, he couldn’t drive, and even needed assistance in the shower. He was taking a multitude of drugs in order to tolerate the pain caused by the pins in each of his remaining toes. Some of those medications made him insufferably belligerent. It was a dark, unhappy time.
On that first fishing morning, Ollie woke up with his alarm for the first time since the injury. He dressed himself without assistance, then gathered the fishing gear he’d prepped the night before: rods, lures, and other goodies sent by Chad Hoover and his kayak fishing buddies. Ollie waited for me at the front door with his milk crate on his lap and his PFD thrown across the back of the wheelchair. Resentment flowed out of him. At the time I thought he resented me. Looking back, I think he resented needing me.
I dropped him off and as I looked at him sitting there insolently in the van, my heart broke. My fun loving, independent clown of a husband was now completely dependent on other people to do…everything. He was emasculated, broken, and diminished. I wondered (not for the first or last time) if this is how our lives would always be. At the time I failed to see the hope, though, in his belligerence—sitting there with his jaw set and his eyes forward. He was angry; he had been robbed of his independence. But he was going fishing, come hell or high water.
When I picked Ollie up after fishing, the change was astonishing. He was no longer balled up in pain and anger. His body was relaxed; his face broke into an easy smile. The cocky banter that I love (even though I pretend it annoys me) flowed freely. While he was in the kayak he was able to move freely and gracefully again. He was confident. He felt like a man again. Just one morning on the water eased months of pain and anguish. That morning was the first time I saw my husband really return from the war. Heroes on the Water brought him back to our family, back to himself.
Heroes on the Water brought him home.
In seven years, Heroes on the Water has grown to nearly 40 local chapters serving wounded, injured and disabled military veterans across the country. The program provides basic kayak fishing instruction, angling clinics and paddling classes, and all necessary equipment. HOW services are free of charge for participants. For more information, to volunteer or to donate, visit www.heroesonthewater.org.