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Image: Corey Arnold

Chad Brown’s salvation came from the river. After a four-year tour of duty with the navy that ping-ponged him from Iraq to Egypt to Somalia, Brown struggled with his return to “normalcy.” At first, he just tried to stay as busy—and ambitious—as possible, getting two degrees in design and fashion, consulting for clients like Russell Simmons’s Phat Farm in New York City, and eventually landing in Portland as an art director at a creative agency in early 2010. Soon, the weight of his PTSD grew too heavy.

“I was in a really dark place, fighting my demons,” he recalls now. He started losing track of the days, which eventually cost him his job. Slowly, he began his recovery, seeking therapy at the VA hospital.

But the real change came later that year when, on a visit to a fly shop near the Umpqua River, Brown decided to buy his first fly rod. He had spent a few afternoons fishing casually at Clackamette Park in Oregon City, but now he dove in head first. He studied fly-fishing techniques, and made friends on his favorite spots on the Sandy, Clackamas, and Deschutes Rivers. He even donated plasma just to pay for gas to get to the river. He explains, “It’s like I’m taking this awesome arena of nature that I’m in and injecting it into my soul.”

Brown knew he wanted to share this discovery with other veterans and with inner-city youth. By early 2012 he was working on what would become his nonprofit, Soul River Inc. “I just shot from the hip like a cowboy,” says Brown. Now, with a retail space in North Portland, the nonprofit teaches fly-fishing to veterans suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, giving them a rare opportunity for peace and quiet. The vets then help lead youth fishing expeditions all over the Northwest, as far away as Alaska.

Brown hopes to inspire the kids he works with—many of whom have rarely, if ever, experienced an old-growth forest or a rushing river—to take environmental action. One student who had never fished prior to his Soul River trip applied to the University of Alaska to study conservation. As for his fellow veterans, who make up many of the volunteers: “It gives them a purpose,” says Brown. “A lot of them have leadership in their DNA, but it’s hard for them to fit back into the norm. It gives them an opportunity to take a stand again.”

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