The first time combat-wounded Army veteran John Thomas went fly-fishing, he found peace.
“It was [like] no other feeling,” he said. “I did more looking up and not looking down on the fly and the current water taking it to where I could just see the sceneries around me, and it just took me away.”
It was also therapeutic for his ravaged body. Thomas was in the middle of what he calls “nasty chemotherapy” for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Standing in the water with waves gently crashing into his back was a relief to his tired joints.
This week, Thomas will enjoy the landscapes and natural remedies of Snowmass, Colorado, as he attends his first National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, co-presented by DAV and the Department of Veterans Affairs. While the event is best known for its adaptive skiing, veterans can also participate in sled hockey, curling, snowboarding, snowmobiling and fly-fishing.
“Being outdoors is a mental reset for me,” Thomas said.
His cancer diagnosis in 2015 was one in a series of blows to the double Purple Heart recipient. Thomas was first injured in 2003 when his vehicle was ambushed while guarding traffic control points in Iraq. He sustained shrapnel wounds to his leg but remained in the country and returned to duty soon after.
Then in 2008, he was injured in a suicide bombing while he was on guard in Afghanistan. He sustained traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, along with more shrapnel across his body. Still, he continued serving. Ultimately, the cancer diagnosis led to his separation from the military in 2016.
“I would still be wearing the uniform to this day [if I could],” Thomas said.
After leaving the Army, Thomas struggled with the effects of his traumatic brain injury and the weight of survivor’s guilt. In turn, he isolated himself.
Until that day on the water. Thomas credits the outdoors and the organization Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing—a previous recipient of a DAV Charitable Service Trust grant—with saving his life.
Now he regularly participates in and guides outdoor excursions with other veterans. He strives to live in honor of his fallen brothers and sisters and help other veterans do the same.
For his sacrifice and selflessness, DAV members in Thomas’ South Carolina hometown collaborated with the TV program “Military Makeover With Montel” to provide Thomas and his family with a more accommodating home. Past Freedom Award recipient and DAV Ambassador CeCe Mazyck made an appearance and invited Thomas to the clinic.
“I’m speechless still, and I’m very grateful to be invited and excited to come join everybody,” Thomas said, adding that he’s most excited about the camaraderie among veterans and building new relationships.
“I just want to share and connect with others to where they can feel comfortable to reach out and I could feel comfortable to reach out, to where we could kick this veteran suicide rate down.”