By Clairissa Cooper
Fly fishing saves lives.
It might sound like a kitschy bumper sticker, but when understood within the context of a wounded veteran, such a sentiment is taken literally.
Lew Duckwall of Lake Dallas, Texas can attest to the life-saving virtues of fly fishing because he witnessed it firsthand. For Duckwall, it’s not hyperbole, it’s his story. Fly fishing saved his life.
Duckwall, a U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant, was leading a team in Iraq when tasked with clearing a collapsed building at dusk. Though the power grid was reported to be down, Lew backed into a live wire that was dangling down from the ceiling. It curled underneath his combat helmet and electrocuted him at the base of his skull.
Lew died at that moment and was soon revived. The injury resulted in traumatic brain injury, partial paralysis, and heart complications requiring a pacemaker.
In 2002, Lew arrived in Iraq a newlywed, having married his second wife Nicole just five days before flying overseas. Four months later, he returned home physically and emotionally broken and was forced to retire after 23 years of military service.
“I came back a completely broken man,” said Lew. “I was verbally abusive to my wife and children to the point where my children wanted nothing to do with me.
“I was destroying everything I loved and everyone that loved me. I was on the verge of losing everything. I had a plan to take my own life.”
Prior to his military career, Lew was a college football player and worked in logging and wild firefighting. His entire life to that point was centered on high speed and physical prowess.
His new life was filled with canes and braces for walking, numerous surgeries, ongoing therapies, and dependence on others.
“All of a sudden, Nicole had to help me get dressed. That was a huge blow to my ego,” explains Lew.
“One moment you are a big, bad dude, in shape, and going at 100 percent physical activity. Then, in one millisecond, everything changes. It’s the mental side of it that’s most difficult.
“I was brutal and did everything I could to push her and the children away.”
In 2009, Lew was invited to attend a fly fishing retreat for wounded veterans by Higher Ground in Idaho. Though he had grown up loving to fly fish with his father, Lew was hesitant to participate.
“I didn’t want to fail at one more thing,” he said. “Because of my physical limitations, I didn’t think I’d be good at it.”
With the family at their breaking point, Lew agreed to go. It was fly fishing and meaningful conversation with a fellow wounded vet that changed everything. That pivotal experience inspired him to find ways to help fellow wounded veterans in the same way.
“I just knew, I’m supposed to take people fly fishing. This is what I’m supposed to do,” he said.
“It’s the river. It’s the outdoors. It’s standing there with the water rushing around you. The fresh air is very soothing. You see bald eagles flying overhead. You just get away from the norm,” said Lew.
DISCOVERING HOPE AND HEALING
Lew linked his efforts with Healing Waters, a national nonprofit that sponsors injured vets on fishing trips. After some time with them, he wanted to cater specifically to North Texas veterans. That’s when Lew and his wife Nicole co-founded North Texas Patriot Anglers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of wounded military veterans and first responders through fishing.
Since 2013, North Texas Patriot Anglers has served nearly 2100 wounded veterans and first responders through therapeutic outdoor recreation – all at no cost to them. Lew and volunteers lead 25-35 fishing trips per year. And veterans can come back to experience the program repeatedly. Often, return visitors act as leaders and mentors to the new participants.
“It’s a program for combat-wounded veterans run by combat-wounded veterans,” says Lew.
Nicole is a 25-year Air Force veteran herself with experience in medical evacuation. Throughout three missions, she transported wounded soldiers out of Afghanistan and Iraq to military bases in Germany and San Antonio. For the past 18 months, she’s worked as a critical care COVID nurse.
Her experience made her uniquely suited to cofound North Texas Patriot Anglers with Lew.
“Nicole is the real hero of the family. As a military medical person, she understands what being wounded is and what it takes to care for these people. Most people don’t understand the extent of emotional and physical wounds for military veterans. She does.”
FLY FISHING AND FAITH
“Once Lew was able to start giving back and serving fellow veterans, it gave him more of a purpose,” said Nicole. “It wasn’t just a recreation, it helped him heal.
“It gave him a way to give back and to find that inner peace.”
Lew credits that newfound inner peace to both fly fishing and faith.
“I believe that when you’re a good person doing good things for other people, Heavenly Father provides for you. If you are giving back and trying to make others’ lives better, God will bless you,” said Lew, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’m still recovering,” Lew added. “This might be a lifelong process. I still have nightmares. I still get sad. But giving back to others and the act of service through fly fishing gives me faith that it will all work out. I’ve been provided an avenue to heal and to help others heal.
“Somewhere in heaven, the best fly fisher I’ve ever known, my dad, is proud. Who could ask for more?”
The Duckwalls urge that if anyone has a military veteran or first responder spouse, brother, sister, friend, or neighbor that needs help, to contact North Texas Patriot Anglers at their website or on Facebook.
One hundred percent of donations go back to the program and the veterans healing through the sport of fly fishing.
“It’s not a sport,” he corrects. “It’s an art.”