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Trout Unlimited: November 2021

A Veteran Gives Back

Wes Dyer has been a fly fisherman since he was a boy growing up in Albuquerque. Nothing hard core—he was just a normal New Mexico kid heading into the mountains whenever he got the chance.

Even as a boy, he knew he wanted to be in the military. Though just a junior in high school, he tried to join the Marines after the 9/11 attack. He kept trying and finally got in. By 2009, he was a sergeant, a counter IED detection dog handler in southern Afghanistan. There are no easy jobs in the military, and his was no different. Not only was Dyer in constant danger, but the innocent and loyal Lottie, his specially trained Labrador, obliviously risked her life on a daily basis. That August, Wes and his team encountered hostile Taliban forces. In the ensuing firefight, Wes was walking near a truck when it detonated some buried explosives.

Sustaining spinal fractures down his back and at the base of his skull, Wes came home that November a broken man. The breakage wasn’t just physical. Away from the comradery of his fellow Marines, Wes found himself alone and without purpose.

“In the military, you always have support and a common mission. There’s accountability and fulfillment. You spend every minute trying to be your best because the job demands it. Then you come home, and suddenly you’re searching for who you are.”

Perhaps unwittingly, Dyer found his way back to fly fishing and decided to get good at it. He found that the harder he tried to master angling, the more thoughts of trout supplanted the stuff of his recurring nightmares. Fly fishing gave him something to look forward to, “a new horizon” as he puts it.

“Fly fishing is a difficult art form,” Dyer says. “You have to do so many things right to catch a fish. You have to practice. I realized there was a benefit to that simplicity that I just had to share, the tying of knots, the rhythm of casting that focuses you on the present.”

In 2018, Wes founded AWOL Angler, a non-profit dedicated to healing veterans through fly fishing. Importantly, he stresses that he is not a clinician and that he isn’t qualified to deliver deeper therapies that impacted veterans might need. AWOL’s basic program entails teaching groups of up to six veterans the basics of the craft at a variety of destination venues.

Dyer raises funds and brings AWOL participants, usually from the Afghanistan and most recent Iraq theatres, on 4-day adventures on Colorado’s Conejos River and New Mexico’s Rio Chama. The Chama is where Dyer’s heart is. He currently lives in the town of Chama with his wife Nicole who, incidentally, is a leader in efforts to expand public fishing opportunities throughout the heart of town.

Although the coronavirus stymied AWOL’s operations through 2020, Dyer is optimistic about the future of the organization. In his first outing since the outbreak began, he recently joined forces with Nick Streit’s Taos Fly Shop for a veterans’ fly fishing school. AWOL also sponsored two veterans teams in the fall fly fishing tournament hosted by Trout Unlimited’s Enchanted Circle chapter in Taos.

Citing the somber fact that through the Afghanistan conflict, soldier suicides have kept pace with combat mortalities, Wes recognizes the necessity of growing AWOL Angler and serving more veterans. In fact, he views this as a matter of duty. “I truly believe that AWOL Angler improves lives and even saves them. We absolutely must do this work for our brothers and sisters who have sacrificed so much of themselves.”

According to Sergeant Wes Dyer, the spirit of healing lies in catch and release fishing, which is why he makes it central to AWOL Angler’s program. He teaches participants how to land fish with minimal stress and how to handle them delicately during release. Healing, he explains, is embodied in the experience of interacting with another being without damaging it, in the intentional act of caring for its health.

“There’s a respect for life… When you release that fish, you hold him in your hand and let him go back to his place. Both sides leave unharmed and wiser for the engagement.”

To learn more about AWOL Angler, go to www.awolangler.org. Watch Emerger – A Combat Veteran Finds Fly Fishing, a beautiful and moving film by Gregg Flores of the outdoor adventure team Where the River Runs. Gregg contributed valuable footage to Questa’s outstanding Querencia film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3UoEJ-zZAw.