The war in Vietnam ended over 40 years ago — but not for Martin Cole.
He goes to battle every night, reliving the steps of his 18-year-old self.
Sometimes the nightmares are so bad that Cole awakens violently, jettisoning himself right off the bed.
He’s broken a toe this way, torn up his knees.
He’s since rigged ropes in his bedroom to catch him when — not if — the nightmares strike again.
Although his skin is weathered and his hair is graying, Cole is still a Marine at war. Only this time, the battleground exists within his mind.
His time in the Corps left him with nightmares, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but for a few hours on Sept. 12, Cole found peace.
“This is something that is very relaxing, very enjoyable,” he said at a lunchtime stop during a day-long fly fishing trip on the Flathead River hosted by Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited.
“The only other time I really feel good like this is when I ride my motorcycle.”
Cole was one of six veterans from the Kalispell Vet Center who participated in the outing. Trout Unlimited works to preserve and restore cold water fisheries in Northwest Montana and organized the float for the third year for local veterans. Members and board members of FVTU taught the vets the basics of the sport as they floated from Pressentine Fishing Access to the Old Steel Bridge. It was a day for learning, but perhaps most important, a chance for the vets to experience the mysterious medicine of the river.
“You’re not coming out here to solve your problems, you’re coming out here to forget about them,” veterans service partnership coordinator Jim Borowski said. “There’s a tremendous therapeutic value in being out on the water — time spent casting a fly, being in nature, focusing on the fly and not your problems. Everything gets washed downstream.”
Cole was 18 when he joined the military.
It was the family business, in a way, and he didn’t have any plans for work or college after graduating high school. He was “gung ho and bullet proof” so into the Marine Corps he went. Although Cole was officially assigned to the communications field, when he deployed to Vietnam his duties varied widely. He pulled security on the base perimeter, went on patrols and ran Jeeps from the base to Da Nang, roughly 12 miles away.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was ever coming back from Vietnam,” Cole said matter-of-factly. “When I volunteered to go over … I figured I would die there.”
More than 57,000 Americans died in Vietnam, but Cole survived his tour of combat.
When he came home, Cole’s transition to civilian life was far from seamless. He was, in his own words, “a mess,” and to make matters worse, had difficulty finding work. He applied for one job that he was fully qualified for, only to be turned away because he had recently returned from Vietnam.
“I went in for the interview and the guy looked at me right in the face and said, ‘We can’t use you,’” Cole said.
He eventually got a job working nights at a pool hall, which he liked because he didn’t have to interact with people or deal with crowds. While he was able to make a living, Cole never dealt with his more unfortunate souvenirs of war until recently. He was referred to the Kalispell Vet Center, where he was connected with a counselor and mental-health services through the VA. They also selected Cole and five others to participate in the fly-fishing outing.
On Thursday, the weather gods smiled upon the floating caravan, gifting the group a bluebird day. Cole and his guide floated in the meandering path of the river, rowing into pockets of still water and to the seams of streams in search of the elusive cutthroat. Cole flicked his line in and out of the water, letting it curl briefly overhead before sending it sailing back into the current. While the skies cooperated, the fish were a little more reticent, although Cole did come close to snagging one.
“There’s an old saying in fishing that your worst day fishing is better than your best day at work,” he said grinning.
It was a real, honest smile — maybe even a sign that the river was doing its job, even just for a day.
On the water, the past, Vietnam and everything else was just a little farther away.
“Today has been great. I love fishing,” Cole said. “I know what to ask for Christmas now — a fly- fishing rig.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited will host their next general meeting at 6 p.m. on Oct. 15 at Sacred Waters Brewing Company in Kalispell located at 3250 Hwy. 2 E. For more information about FVTU, visit www.flatheadtu.org or call (406) 755-2920. To learn more about the Kalispell Vet Center’s outdoor programs and mental health services, call (406) 257-7308 or visit 690 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell.