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Fly fishing saved this veteran’s life. Watch his story at Columbus film festival.

Fly fishing saved Chad Brown’s life.

A U.S. Navy veteran who served in Desert Storm and Operation Restore Hope, Brown dealt with a lot of “dark stuff in his past” upon returning to civilian life, he said.

He eventually lost “everything” and lived homeless on the streets of Portland, Oregon, before getting help from Veterans Affairs. He received assistance from the VA for about five years.

But the medications he took “engulfed his emotions,” he said. He couldn’t smile, couldn’t laugh and lived out of his truck. He donated blood at local blood drives for meal money. He was in “straight survival mode” 24 hours-a-day, and his circumstances nearly drove him to end his own life.

In 2009, Brown spent seven days in a VA suicide wing after attempting to take his own life on the river, following years of unsuccessful medication. He planned on trying medicine again, but a friend crossed his path.

“(The friend) took me to the river and told me, ‘I used to come to the river to fish,’” Brown said. “I said, ‘How do you get into fishing?’ And it just so happened that, right behind me, there was a shop.”

That’s where Brown bought his first fly fishing rod. When he caught a jack salmon later that day, he started “hooping and hollering.” He smiled again, then cried.

“I felt the medication oozing out of my pores,” Brown said. “I felt the air brush against my skin for the first time in a long time.”

Brown returned to the VA in Portland and told the workers that he wanted to fish more. The workers, he said, promised to slowly take him off his medication if he fished, and continued to attend group therapy.

Over time, Brown improved. He would eventually pick up sponsors. Then he went professional.

“Fly fishing became my medicine,” Brown said.

Discovering the use of nature as medicine led Brown to start Soul River Inc., a nonprofit that aims to share that same healing power with other veterans and inner-city youth. It takes groups on “deployments” to local rivers in Oregon and Washington and has sponsored trips to as far as Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In addition to serving as Soul River Inc.’s president, Brown sits on the National Wildlife Refuge Association’s board of directors.

“Chandalar,” a film showing at the upcoming Wild and Scenic Film Festival (WSFF), follows Brown and a group of veterans, volunteers and his service dog, Axe, as they embark on a three-week “deployment” to the Chandalar River.

Coming to Columbus

Trees Columbus membership, special events and fundraising coordinator Paige Swift saw “Chandalar” at the main festival in California. She had to leave during the audience question-and-answer portion but connected with Brown after the viewing.

The two talked for hours over coffee. Swift said Brown saw Columbus’ military community, bolstered by the presence of Fort Benning, as a key demographic for the film. Swift said she’d do “whatever it takes” to get him to Columbus, and he’ll be attending the festival this week.

Brown will be giving a coffee talk 9 a.m. Friday at Uptown Inc., and his movie will show sometime between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on the main stage at the festival.

“He’s changing lives,” Swift said. “He’s taking kids who would never get the opportunity to connect with rivers, nature and fly fishing … There will be some not-dry eyes in the house when he’s up there telling (his story).”

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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