Beau Beasley is in an investigative conservation writer and the Director of the Virginia & Texas Fly Fishing Festivals. This fall, his new book Healing Waters: Veteran’s Journey of Recovery in Their Own Words comes out.
Today, we’re excited to have the opportunity to share an excerpt from the book. You can read it below.
About an hour west of Washington, DC, among the bucolic rolling hills of Madison County, Virginia, there is a rock. Perhaps at one time this rock was wedged securely alongside other rocks; perhaps it was buried somewhere deep in the earth’s crust. Chances are better than fair that this rock is a chip off of the nearby mountains, which command a breathtaking view of the serene valley below. At first blush it looks like any other rock–but this rock is different.
Surrounded by an open field, the rock has but one companion: the Rose River flows quietly a few steps away, winding its way across the valley floor. The Rose itself begins in the mountains, a few miles upstream in the Shenandoah National Park. It tumbles from there, picking up speed as it rushes off the backside of the mountains, and then occasionally stopping to create plunge pools before pushing its way downward. Occasionally the river is delayed by fallen tree limbs that act as miniature wooden dams–but only for a while. In the repeating river-versus-tree contest, the river always wins in the end. It rushes on, turning and weaving, eventually surmounting all barriers. In time it leaves the mountainous park altogether to traverse fields and old homesteads. Here, cows look on the river with indifference, except occasionally when they slip into the river for a drink or a quick dip to escape Virginia’s summer heat.
Eventually the Rose makes its way to Rose River Farm, owned by one Douglas Dear, where it widens (just a bit) and deepens (considerably), its cold waters providing comfort to colorful rainbows, browns, and even the occasional native brook trout. And although their noses break the surface of the river periodically to take a struggling fly, the hapless fly angler who carelessly casts his shadow across the river’s surface quickly learns that these wary trout are always on guard.
About 500 yards downstream from the farm entrance the river finally meets and then passes our solitary rock. It keeps a stationary, silent vigil alongside the water, day and night and in all kinds of weather. The rock marks the place where Sergeant First Class Brian Mancini cast a fly rod in the Rose River for the very first time, hoping to land one of its skittish trout. Brian had served as a combat medic until an IED left him without the use of his left eye and with other profound head injuries. He spent months recovering from the blast–and it was during this recovery, at Walter Reed in DC, that he’d discovered Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.
Working through severe injuries, Brian learned to cast–a small miracle, considering that initially in his recovery he needed assistance just to stand. Then there were the blinding headaches. The bouts of dizziness that came upon him without warning. The nausea induced by his doctor-prescribed medication cocktail. And always the pain–nagging, ceaseless, penetrating, often debilitating pain. Nevertheless, Brian, determined to put his newfound skills to the test against the Rose’s finicky trout, had a great day on the water during his first visit to Rose River Farm. Since that day hundreds and perhaps thousands of servicemen and women have followed in his footsteps and found solace on the farm along the banks of the Rose.
On April 29, 2017, Staff Sergeant Robert Barlett, himself a wounded combat veteran of the Iraq War and the very first person to participate in Project Healing Waters, dedicated this rock in memory of Brian Mancini. Flanking Bartlett was the founder of Project Healing Waters, retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson, and longtime supporter and board member Loralee West. They each spoke fondly of Brian–how they had come to know him personally and just how much he would be missed. We all want to love and be loved, they reminded us; we all yearn to be a part of something bigger than ourselves–to belong and to have a sense of purpose. Developing connections is tough–remaining connected, in the face of pain and doubt and despondency, is even tougher. When we lose touch with those we love and who love us–when we isolate ourselves from the relationships that give our lives meaning–we walk into a prison cell, the door of which slams shut firmly behind us. Isolating oneself is relatively easy; reaching out of that agonizing loneliness, beating with both fists on that prison door–is very, very difficult.
During the dedication, I reflected on the Brian Mancini I had known–his sense of humor, his infectious smile–and how his all-too-brief life had intersected my own. I first met Brian on a fishing trip in Idaho, along the South Fork of the Salmon River. Initially I knew no one but Ed Nicholson–but Nicholson, in his inscrutable wisdom, had chosen Brian Mancini to be my roommate the night before we headed out to the river. Not surprisingly, Mancini the veteran Army medic and Beasley the veteran paramedic spoke a sort of common language. So we talked shop. I retired with 30 years on the job as a firefighter and paramedic on an advanced life support unit, and I have seen much, much more than my fair share of horror and trauma–but my experience paled in comparison to Brian’s own. The things he’d seen–the things he’d had to do to save his fellow soldiers–set him apart even from someone as intimately acquainted with death as I am. He became more comfortable with me as we spoke; we quickly developed a bond that first responders share with one another. And yet I knew that Brian was hurting. Beyond the constant, nagging physical pain of his injuries, he had a deep emotional pain that isolated him–imprisoned him–even in the midst of others.
“How much more do I have to sacrifice in the service of my country?” The question hung heavy in the room. I could not answer him. “I’ve lost my health, I’ve lost my career, and I’ve lost my marriage,” Brian continued. “What else is there?” I had no answers for him, then or now.
Brian knew as well as anyone that many wounded vets struggle to transition successfully from hospital stay to civilian life. They leave a life of meaning and belonging to enter the unknown, sometimes all alone. Brian eventually moved to Arizona to open the nonprofit Honor House to ease this transition. He worked closely with local first responders, training them to interact effectively with veterans in emergencies. Brian gained some notoriety for his efforts; I recall watching him being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and thinking how well he looked. He had gotten a therapy dog. He seemed, I thought, to be well on his way to a full recovery.
I thought wrong.
Instead, Brian took his own life. The “how” doesn’t really matter; the “why” is all that matters now. Brian became isolated and alone. He could see no way out of his prison. Tragically, thousands of servicemen and women have felt the same, taking their own lives after returning from their deployments. The civilian wonders how someone can survive a war zone only to come home and commit suicide. The civilian doesn’t understand that many vets cannot get home–even when they’re home. The civilian doesn’t understand the seemingly impenetrable prison of isolation and despair that too many vets exist in, right here “at home.”
I don’t know–I will never know–why Brian took his own life that day. What I do know is Brian’s Rock: a silent, stark reminder that our blessed freedom comes at a terribly high price, paid for by a few for the rest of their lives. We civilians, born into freedom, have a solemn obligation to remember the sacrifices of those men and women who have defended that freedom with the last full measure of devotion.
Brian’s Rock was dedicated to a hero who was also a real live person. We will never forget his courage and dedication to duty–and we will also never forget his sense of humor or his smile. This book is my attempt to honor Brian Mancini and those men and women like him–heroic and also human–who have served and continue to serve every day to keep us free. You are real. You are not alone. You are not forgotten.