SHEL­TER FROM THE STORM

A FOR­MER MA­RINE HELPS VETER­ANS COPE WITH PTSD ONE FISH­ING TRIP AT A TIME

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY SI­MON MURRAY PHO­TOS BY JA­SON STEM­PLE

Ma­rine Corps vet­eran Ozzie Martinez started Wetvets to “re­place the night­mare of the road­side bomb with catch­ing a sail­fish.” On this day eight com­bat veter­ans head off­shore to fish the Gulf Stream. By SI­MON MURRAY

PPa­trick Orth, a Ma­rine com­bat vet­eran and Pur­ple Heart re­cip­i­ent, had never sat in a fight­ing chair. Few of the Marines on the 51-foot sport­fish­er­man that day had. But you couldn’t tell by watch­ing him. Orth looked like a nat­u­ral, sit­ting with knees slightly bent, lean­ing for­ward, throw­ing his weight back with each rhyth­mic pump of the rod. A vast ex­panse of ocean stretched in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Up came the mahi-mahi. The mate leaned over the side of the Forbes, gaffed the fish and sent it wheel­ing into the fish­box. “That your first mahi?” the mate asked. “This is my first time be­ing on a sport­fish­ing boat,” said Orth, a 31-year-old for­mer Ma­rine Corps lance cor­po­ral from Asheville, North Carolina. Orth got up from the fight­ing chair and joined the other veter­ans, who were re­lax­ing in the shade of the fly­bridge over­hang. He sat on the gun­wale. Some­one handed him a beer. “That’s badass,” Orth said after a mo­ment’s re­flec­tion. “You al­ready got five stars in my book.”

Pos­i­tive Rush

On this day eight com­bat veter­ans were get­ting a taste of off­shore fish­ing while trolling on two boats along the edge of the Gulf Stream, about 60 miles south­east of Charleston, South Carolina. They’d come from there and neigh­bor­ing states. All had seen com­bat in Afghanistan or Iraq. Many had earned Pur­ple Hearts for be­ing in­jured in the line of duty. And many, if not all, suf­fered from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, or PTSD. Op­er­a­tion Wetvet had brought them to­gether. It’s a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Mi­ami that for­mer Ma­rine Corps Cpl. Os­valdo “Ozzie” Martinez Jr. started after he re­turned from Iraq. The 35-year-old Martinez has strug­gled with PTSD for 10 years. “I started it to re­place the night­mare of the road­side bomb with catch­ing a sail­fish,” he said.

On the wa­ter Martinez looks for teach­able mo­ments when he can show com­bat veter­ans that there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive adren­a­line. “The rea­son I chose off­shore fish­ing over in­shore and back­coun­try is that ex­cite­ment of watch­ing that fish jump and hear­ing the reel scream,” Martinez said. Veter­ans need to learn how to rec­og­nize good adren­a­line rushes; those who have been in com­bat over­re­act when they hear a loud muf­fler, for in­stance. “I want to teach th­ese guys how

to func­tion with their PTSD,” Martinez said, “be­cause this doesn’t go away. We’re go­ing to live with it for­ever.”

In Iraq in 2004, Martinez served with the 3rd As­sault Am­phib­ian Bat­tal­ion, 1st Ma­rine Di­vi­sion. He got his first glimpse of the de­struc­tion of war as part of a con­voy along a six-lane high­way be­tween Kuwait and Iraq. U.S. and Bri­tish forces had driven there dur­ing the 2003 in­va­sion. Smashed ve­hi­cles and black­ened holes from bomb blasts re­mained.

“It didn’t feel real,” Martinez said. “It felt like some­thing out of a movie set.” The Marines in his unit called Martinez “com­bat cam­era” be­cause of the dig­i­tal Nikon he car­ried. He saved some of the pho­tos, each one times­tamped and dated. One cap­tured a 23-year-old Martinez out­side Camp Fal­lu­jah. An­other shows him sit­ting next to a smil­ing Ma­rine at base camp, where they watched episodes of The So­pra­nos and any movies they could get on DVD. With the white­washed brick walls be­hind them, the set­ting could eas­ily be mis­taken for a col­lege dorm room.

“This guy right here, Puck­ett,” Martinez said, “he died less than a month after that pic­ture was taken. That’s his last liv­ing pic­ture.”

Martinez some­times can’t be out at a restau­rant or some other public place with­out jump­ing at the sound of a door slam­ming. But out on the wa­ter he feels dif­fer­ent, and he wants to help other veter­ans feel that way, too.

Ca­ma­raderie

The day Orth caught his first mahi started about 4:30 a.m., when the sun was barely above the hori­zon. The char­ter boats Fam­ily Tra­di­tion and Lit­tle Less Talk­ing cruised out of Ri­p­ley Light Yacht Club with Steven Diaz in a helm chair on one of the fly­bridges. In Iraq, Diaz was a cor­po­ral in a Ma­rine pla­toon as­signed to con­voy se­cu­rity. He’d been search­ing for and clear­ing homemade bombs — im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices, or IEDS in mil­i­tary jar­gon — when one ex­ploded un­der his Humvee. The blast left him blind in one eye.

On the boat, Diaz ap­peared to be en­joy­ing him­self. He and Orth un­furled an Amer­i­can flag in the cock­pit. The oth­ers traded good-na­tured rib­bing, laughed and told war sto­ries. The sense of ca­ma­raderie on the boat, they said, was sim­i­lar to what they ex­pe­ri­enced in the ser­vice.

“For us, that’s the big­gest thing that we miss, es­pe­cially when you’ve been in com­bat,” Diaz said. “When we’re in sit­u­a­tions like [this one],

where we’re given a goal and an ob­jec­tive, and there’s a lit­tle bit of dan­ger, it makes us open up.”

For Orth, the day brought back mem­o­ries of grow­ing up, fish­ing for large­mouth bass with his fa­ther. “For a lot of my free time, when I got home from Iraq, I was in the river fish­ing,” Orth said. “Fish­ing does help out a lot. It takes your mind off stuff that you got prob­lems with.”

Sgt. Ver­non Miller, a tall, quiet 31-year-old for­mer in­fantry ma­chine gun­ner from Greenville, South Carolina, seemed in­tro­verted and re­served on the boat, as if he were strad­dling two worlds. He was re­tired from the Spe­cial Forces. The week after the fish­ing trip, he was sched­uled to have the nerve end­ings on the right side of his back cau­ter­ized to help man­age his back pain, a nag­ging in­jury he sus­tained over three de­ploy­ments. He gazed at the hori­zon and didn’t say much.

In the morn­ing, the boat trolled for mahi, and the ac­tion was slow. By late morn­ing, only two of the vets had hooked fish, so the boats moved in­shore to a reef and jigged for am­ber­jack.

The men re­laxed and talked and laughed. Each took a turn in the chair. Some 25 miles off­shore, there was or­der, a sys­tem. They could leave their land-based con­cerns be­hind, at least for a few hours.

Strug­gles

After re­turn­ing home in 2006 from two tours in Iraq, Martinez suf­fered from de­pres­sion. His com­pany had taken the most ca­su­al­ties out of his bat­tal­ion, and he says he had sur­vivor’s guilt. He put on weight. He was liv­ing fast, par­ty­ing. But he didn’t un­der­stand the ex­tent of his PTSD un­til two years later, when the Marines re­ac­ti­vated him. He was on a plane

bound for Kansas City, Mis­souri, when he learned that in one month he would be de­ployed to Afghanistan to train Afghan sol­diers.

“I started hav­ing anx­i­ety at­tacks and night­mares be­cause now I was no longer re­press­ing it,” Martinez said.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs gave Martinez a PTSD rat­ing of 70 per­cent. (A rat­ing of zero per­cent means PTSD has not af­fected a vet­eran’s abil­ity to work, while a 100 per­cent rat­ing in­di­cates to­tal in­ca­pac­ity to work.) Shortly af­ter­ward, he re­ceived a let­ter stat­ing that he no longer met the phys­i­cal and men­tal re­quire­ments of the Marines. He was “non-de­ploy­able.”

The night­mares and anx­i­ety at­tacks per­sisted. He self-med­i­cated with al­co­hol. He was pre­scribed psy­chotropic drugs. Nei­ther worked.

Martinez would drink him­self into a stu­por and pore over the more than 3,000 pic­tures he’d taken in Iraq, ru­mi­nat­ing about the friends he had lost. Un­able to re­late to his friends and fam­ily in Mi­ami, he with­drew. His wife kicked him out. His son had just been born, but Martinez still had trou­ble find­ing joy in life. He moved in with his grand­fa­ther and shut down, barely in­ter­act­ing with the out­side world.

Sea Change

On a camp­ing trip in 2014 with for­mer pla­toon mates in Cal­i­for­nia, Martinez re­ceived news that a friend had com­mit­ted sui­cide. He re­al­ized that many of his com­rades were hav­ing the same strug­gles, or worse, with PTSD that he was. Shortly after that, a friend in Mi­ami in­vited Martinez out lob­ster­ing. Be­ing on the wa­ter changed things. Martinez be­lieved he could make a dif­fer­ence if he could com­bine the ca­ma­raderie he’d felt camp­ing with the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of off­shore fish­ing.

He or­ga­nized the first fish­ing trip out of Key Largo, Florida, with 20 veter­ans. Next, he asked coun­selors from the Mi­ami Vet Cen­ter to join the fish­ing trips. Be­ing an­glers them­selves, they were only too happy to help, Martinez said.

Start­ing Op­er­a­tion Wetvet gave Martinez a pur­pose. Help­ing com­bat veter­ans deal with PTSD, he said, helped him come to terms with his own is­sues. Martinez started see­ing a ther­a­pist. He and his wife rec­on­ciled. He is now the fa­ther of two boys.

Through the gen­eros­ity of cap­tains will­ing to donate char­ters, Martinez hopes to broaden the scope of Op­er­a­tion Wetvet to reach more veter­ans in more coastal com­mu­ni­ties.

“A lot of th­ese guys are in dark places sim­i­lar to my own,” Martinez said, cit­ing sta­tis­tics that sug­gest as many as 22 veter­ans a day com­mit sui­cide. “What­ever the fig­ure is, there are veter­ans com­mit­ting sui­cide ev­ery day due to PTSD. I’m not try­ing to just get th­ese guys fish­ing. Ev­ery­one I’ve taken out on th­ese trips, I’m still in con­tact with. They have my per­sonal num­ber. I’m let­ting th­ese guys know that they’re not alone.”

It was late af­ter­noon when the boats re­turned to the docks, where a group had as­sem­bled. One of the char­ter cap­tains thanked the veter­ans for their ser­vice. Oth­ers echoed his sen­ti­ments. A large Amer­i­can flag bil­lowed in the breeze.

Ver­non Miller, the quiet Spe­cial Forces vet­eran, left with­out say­ing much. A cou­ple of days later, though, he ex­plained in a text how, some­times, he would at­tend group ther­apy. He rarely said any­thing there, but he said those ses­sions and out­ings such as the fish­ing trip were help­ing.

“Events like this let you know you’re not alone and link you up with brothers in the same shoes, who you can reach out to and they can reach out to you,” Miller said. “It’s just a re­minder you’re not alone, and that’s the most im­por­tant thing for guys to re­al­ize. At least it was for me, and still is to­day.”

The Wetvet or­ga­ni­za­tion helps veter­ans rec­og­nize pos­i­tive adren­a­line rushes, such as the howl of a reel when a big fish makes for the hori­zon.

Fish­ing has a way of keep­ing you fo­cused on the here and now, as for­mer Ma­rine Cpl. Steven Diaz dis­cov­ered on an off­shore trip.

Ver­non Miller (left) and Steven Diaz with a matched pair of am­ber­jacks. For­mer Ma­rine and or­ga­ni­za­tion founder Ozzie Martinez (far right) hoists a mahi.

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