Once a fisherman, always a fisherman...
Chicago TribuneMay 17, 2006 Pg. 1GIs Angle For Quiet Time At Baghdad School Of Fly Fishing
By Aamer Madhani, Tribune staff reporter
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq -- Like many of his fellow anglers in the Baghdad School of Fly Fishing, Navy Lt. Joel Stewart thought an afternoon of casting on one of Saddam Hussein's lakes could make him feel as though he had escaped the war and was back in his native Montana, fishing for trout.
But sometimes he couldn't pretend.
"There was one time when I was casting and a rocket landed in the lake about 400 meters from me," said Stewart, an avid angler and founder of the club dedicated to introducing U.S. soldiers in Iraq to what is known as the "quiet sport."
Other fishing excursions have been interrupted by gun battles and roadside bombs exploding within earshot. "I wasn't in any real danger, but it was a real reminder of where we're at," Stewart said.
For many soldiers, the war in Iraq is about enduring painfully long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief flashes of terror. Even the most battle-seasoned of infantrymen can weather months of humdrum patrols without firing a shot or being fired at.
Finding ways to maintain sanity during the valleys of the fight can sometimes be as daunting as the peaks of battle, the soldiers say.
On U.S. bases, video games are perhaps the most popular downtime distractions, particularly games that mimic war, such as Halo and Mortal Kombat. The U.S. military has also built state-of-the-art gyms and rock-climbing walls, and it screens movies to offer troops temporary reprieves from the stress of their work.
There is no bar scene, such as the one U.S. troops enjoyed in Saigon, and there have been few stories of GIs meeting their future brides, as many American troops did during World War II. But the variety of diversions and creature comforts available to troops in Iraq is astounding compared with previous wars.
At some of the military post exchanges soldiers can purchase flat-screen televisions, DVDs, Maxim magazine and other comforts of home. The Internet and the availability of cellular phones have made keeping in touch with loved ones back home easy and relatively inexpensive.
Some U.S. troops use their downtime to take correspondence courses, hundreds blog on the Internet and a few have even formed rock bands.
But the Baghdad School of Fly Fishing based at Camp Victory is unique.
"I can't tell you the number of times I have come out with a fly rod and solved the world's problems," said U.S. Army Maj. Vance Sperry, a club director, on a recent afternoon as he took an hourlong break to cast a line.
Stewart, a Montana native whose yearlong tour ended in February, founded the club to help fellow service members clear their minds while teaching them a sport they could enjoy back home. When Stewart went home, Lt. Col. William Jones and Sperry took over.
"There is nothing better than spending a day fly fishing," said Jones, taking time recently from his job in the planning and policy unit of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq to lead a class. "Here, we're lucky to get free for an hour twice a week, but I'll take it. It's good to get your mind off things for a little while. Everybody out here has to find a way. This is mine."
This spring, during the chaos that consumed Iraq after the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, Jones and his colleagues worked 20 hours a day. When things slowed down to the more normal 14-hour workday, the first thing Jones did was head to one of the lakes on base with his fly rod, he said.
Stewart said he started fly fishing at Camp Victory whenever he could find a free hour. The manmade lakes still teem with carp and other fish stocked during Hussein's regime.
"Some guys do PT [physical training] to unwind," Stewart said in a telephone interview from his new base in Rhode Island. "I do PT because you have to. Fly fishing allows me to decompress. When you're deployed you have to have something to let your mind escape for a little while."
Inevitably, service members who saw Stewart fishing would stop to inquire about it. Some of them asked if they could join him. Stewart, an ambassador of the sport, would always oblige.
With all the interest from soldiers and sailors who wanted to learn how to fly fish, Stewart got the idea to start an eight-week course. The class focuses on teaching the basics of the sport and is open to service members at Camp Victory.
He started posting notes on a fly fishing bulletin board on the Internet, writing about fishing in Iraq and his desire to teach other service members to fly fish. Soon, enthusiasts in the United States were mailing him flies, reels, rods and other equipment to run his class.
Stewart also started a Web site to post his war zone fishing tales (all true, he insists) and updates on the classes.
In one entry from August, he described an hourlong battle with a behemoth fish called a mangar, a species found in the Tigris River.
"He turned towards the brush pile and I strained the connection between us, trying to turn his massive head out of the danger zone," Stewart wrote. "That proved to be too much for my weary tippet and it gave up the fight. Just like that it was over. I had been in the fight for an hour and felt every minute of it. The moment of defeat-induced despair was quickly overcome with the euphoria fed by adrenaline. I had fought the fish of a lifetime for an hour."
Stewart graduated 34 anglers from the Baghdad School of Fly Fishing before returning to the U.S. Jones hopes to graduate dozens more before he heads home early next year.
"My hope was to get some guys out of their hooches and out of the MWR [Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers], teach them to fly fish and find something that would give them a little distraction," Stewart said. "It's gone way better than I thought it would."