Documentary shows injured vets fly fishing toward recovery
CHAMPAIGN — Without Warriors and Quiet Water, Marine veteran Erik Goodge might have discovered fly fishing on his own.
But the nonprofit program started by a retired Marine career officer gave Goodge and perhaps scores of other Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans a push in the right direction.
"It's just relaxing, calming. It gives you a hobby more than anything," the 24-year-old Goodge said of fly fishing, which he has adopted with passion. "Everything in it is fluid, repetitive motion, and there's a lot of thinking that goes into it."
And to documentary filmmaker Sabrina Lee, fly fishing appeared to be a great metaphor for what veterans like Goodge, an infantry forward observer, experienced.
So much so that Lee, a resident of Bozeman, Mont., made her second documentary, "Not Yet Begun to Fight," on Warrior and Quiet Waters, founded by retired Marine Col. Eric Hastings, also of Bozeman.
The 60-minute documentary will be shown at noon April 21, the last day of the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, at the Virginia Theatre.
Lee, who will be here for the screening, said she believes Hastings best explains in the documentary the metaphor.
"He talks about how for these young men who have been trained to kill that taking a living creature out of the water in their hands, carefully removing the hook, and returning the fish to their environment is transformative. It brings them to a new place essentially. That's what's needed for their recovery."
"Not Yet Begun to Fight" is an elegiac yet brutally honest look at the physical and emotional ravages of combat. The documentary doesn't break mood, though, by including combat footage.
Instead, the veterans who take part in the six-day Warriors and Quiet Waters program covered by Lee, co-director Shasta Grenier and their crew, talk — some quite graphically — about their experiences and injuries.
And that's remarkable, considering that Lee and crew had no pre-production stage during which they could learn about the soldiers.
"We had none of that because Col. Hastings is so keen on getting the warriors as soon as possible," she said. "Neither he nor I had their names before we arrived in San Diego to film them. It was a great challenge to have to both get to know them and allow them to feel comfortable with us and what we were doing. We had to immediately hit the ground running and start making the film."
The crew shot footage for two days in San Diego immediately before the veterans went to Montana. After filming them taking part in Warriors and Quiet Waters in Montana, the filmmakers returned to San Diego to follow up on their subjects.
"At first, and you can feel this when watching the film, they are somewhat apprehensive," Lee said. "They are less willing to talk and open up. Over the course of a week, they got the sense we weren't there to exploit them. They were falling in love with fly fishing and Montana and began sharing their stories."
Perhaps the most open was Blake Smith, a helicopter pilot who was left a paraplegic after his aircraft crashed and burned. While fly fishing from a boat in Montana, he talks of his injuries and how they affect his daily life. He speaks of the shame he feels that four other soldiers were killed in the helicopter crash, though the accident was not his fault.
Lee said his story articulates the main themes of the documentary: the loss of identity and eventual recovery.
"They resonate in way a that's larger than the impact of war," she said.
Coming to terms
Goodge, who served in Afghanistan, was the youngest of the veterans filmed by Lee and her crew. Perhaps being more resilient, he seems to have come to terms with his identity.
In the documentary he talks about missing the intense camaraderie of combat and wanting nothing other than to return to Afghanistan. Now medically retired from the military, he told The News-Gazette he no longer wants to return to the Mideast.
He's gone back to his hometown of Evansville, Ind., where he works as warehouse manager of a pool and hot-tub installation company. And he has a girlfriend.
"I just bought a house," he said. "Once I get settled in this house, I can start going to school."
He was 4 feet from the explosion that blew shrapnel into his head, causing two skull fractures, a shattered eye socket and the loss of his right eye. He spent 14 months in a military hospital.
Goodge, who wears a black eye patch, appeared as an onstage guest at the 2013 Ebertfest. Another, more gravely wounded veteran, Elliott Miller, who also took part in Warriors and Quiet Waters, was to have attended but did not, as his wife was due to give birth to their second child .
After Miller, a Navy Seal, was shot in Iraq, he lost more than four liters of blood, causing brain damage and the loss of his speaking voice. He lost most of one leg as well, and his other leg is injured, too.
He uses a wheelchair to get around and text-to-voice software to express himself, though he continues to work on his spoken language skills.
His straightforward yet lyrical written statements — some were pre-recorded for the documentary — are remarkably similar to Ebert's text-to-voice prose.
Miller says in "Not Yet Begun to Fight" — the title comes from the tattoo on his left arm — that Warriors and Quiet Waters didn't teach him anything new about his life but did teach him patience and understanding and to go on pushing when everything seems against you.
Heart of the doc
So far, 200 wounded warriors have participated in Warriors and Quiet Waters; Hastings and others started the private nonprofit in December 2006, after the retired colonel conducted extensive research.
The program, which costs $4,000 per soldier, matches a wounded warrior with a companion and professional guide.
The heart of "Not Yet Begun to Fight," Hastings, who retired from the Marines after 30 years of active duty, explains that fly fishing saved his life.
"I came back from combat and found I needed relief," he says in the documentary. "The more I was out there fly fishing, the more I knew I needed more of it. It became an absolutly desperate physical and mental need, and I had to do it or I was going to kill somebody."
Tough but empathetic, Hastings chokes up a few times in the documentary, especially as he sees soldiers meet with success while fly fishing. (All the fish, no matter their size, are returned to the water.)
Hastings said the basic aims of Warriors and Quiet Waters are to show emotionally and physically wounded veterans that life is interesting and offers fun things to do, and that America cares deeply about them.
"It turns out we were exactly right," he said. "Recovery is more than repetitive exercises in a gym attached to a hospital."
Won't go away
Although Veterans Affairs has spent money fixing and expanding its facilities to deal with wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many — particularly those with extreme injuries — remain constantly at risk, Hastings said.
That's why the Warriors and Quiet Waters foundation and other private therapeutic recreation programs for wounded veterans will not go away, he said.
"The problem isn't going away," Hastings said. "There are tens of thousands of servicemen out there who desperately need what we give them to survive.
His program takes participants to Yellowstone not to fly fish but to see its beauty. Of all the soldiers who have gone through his Warriors and Quiet Waters, only one or two had been to Yellowstone before, he said.
Opens a door
Hastings, who's in his 70s, called "Not Yet Begun to Fight" an "absolutely terrific movie," with well-conveyed stories and cinematography that aptly portrays the beauty of Montana and Yellowstone National Park
The documentary, which has not yet found a theatrical distributor, has been shown at several film festivals. Among the awards it's received are the Big Sky Award from the 2013 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the audience awards at the 2012 San Diego and Florida film festivals.
Lee, 42, said it's an incredible honor to be part of Ebertfest, a special event of the UI College of Media. She is an alumna of Duke University, where she took film, art and philosophy classes and received a certificate in the arts and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
She became a modern dancer and choreographer, living and working in Chicago in her 20s. She turned to documentary filmmaking in 2005, after spotting a hand-painted sign in a cow pasture that read "Hip-Hop Show Tonight."
She subsequently made "Where You From," an award-winning feature-length documentary on rural rap. IndiePix films acquired it in 2009, after it had a successful festival run. She became interested in wounded warriors because the father of a subject in "Where You From" came back from service overseas with severe post-traumatic stress and eventually left his family.
As does Lee, Goodge believes "Not Yet Begun to Fight" opens a door to a world that few civilians see or try to understand.
"Hopefully it starts a discussion, not that there isn't one now," said Goodge, who has participated in other therapeutic programs offered to veterans by private groups and foundations.
"I think it does a lot for the guys," he said. "The guys, when they're in the hospital, the last thing they need is sitting and staring at other guys who are wounded.
"Getting these guys outdoors really opens them up and makes them realize even though they're missing an arm or leg or both legs, their life isn't over."