War and Fishing

War & Fishing photo gallery

I was Christmas shopping online.

It was one of my last days working for ESPN in Studio Production. I was getting ready to switch over to writing about the outside full-time for ESPNOutdoors.com and the boys of B.A.S.S.

So I thought I would still come into the office and be productive.

Christmas shopping.

Had three online sites open, blazing ESPN speed, jumping back and forth, very productivelike.


E-mail calling.

But I only had 1:45 left to buy the "Best Seats Available," (which if that was the case I would be buying tickets to sit in my own recliner in my own family room and not jammed into some auditorium with a bunch of people who don't smell like the people I normally hang around with) to a concert by some wrinkly-arse guy that my wife has loved since the LBJ administration.

I hit the Inbox tab-thing down there right next to the "Start" button. Sorry Hon, going to be an iPod concert … work is work.

And this is what opened on the fourth page of my Christmas shopping screen:

War and Fishing

On the second day of November 2006 my life changed forever. I am a soldier in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Afghanistan in the early part of that year. We knew the attack was coming but we didn't know how or when. Sometimes in a war you get a feeling, we like to call it spidey-sense. It didn't come how we expected it with the usual roadside bomb, the enemy had grown more confident and hit us with everything they had. My truck was hit in the opening volley of rocket-propelled grenades from each side and I was immediately knocked unconscious. The next thing I remembered was waking in a vicious close-range firefight with an enemy that outnumbered us 3 to 1. I knew I was hurt, but didn't know how bad, the following time to me was in and out, between an intense gun battle, racing vehicles, and medics.

The heroics of the firefight were largely undocumented but there were four Army Commendation Medals with "V" for valor awarded and one Bronze Star with a "V" for valor is pending still. There were four Purple Hearts Awarded. All are Connecticut soldiers. The next thing I remembered was waking up after surgery to save my left arm. The next thing was a hospital in Germany. In all I had taken some serious shrapnel in my left shoulder, arm, wrist, face and knee. I lost all the hearing in my left ear and some in my right, and had a severe concussion. The road to recovery was going to be a long one. One month later I made it home to Connecticut to take some convalescent leave with my family.

I had always enjoyed fishing. I grew up in Hamden fishing the Mill River with my father and brothers. We spent our summers in Cape Cod at the family cottage fishing for fluke and stripers in the bay. It was at these places I learned to fish and to appreciate the outdoors for its beauty and relaxing effects. I had grown a little addiction to fishing throughout the years, as my dad would say. I would walk three miles to the Mill as a kid just to fish the last hour of sun in my favorite pool. At the Cape I would beg my old man to take the boat out in horrible conditions. I just couldn't get enough.

So when I got home from war, it was naturally one of the first things I wanted to do. My conditions really put a restriction on it for a while. Shortly after the new year I figured I could muster up the strength to fish the Naugatuck for salmon. It was a cold day and my father and friends Keith and Cliff headed out to try our luck. That day was a skunk but it has probably been the most memorable fishing trip of my life. When I made my first cast it had been as though I hadn't taken nearly two years off. All the pain was gone, if only just for a moment.

As time went on throughout the winter, things got better and worse, like the tide at the Cape, I had highs and lows. Nobody comes home from war unchanged, though my scars were healing, my mind was not. Besides the memory problems from the blast, I was in a bad place mentally. I didn't sleep at night because the nightmares haunted my dreams and during the day memories and images danced in my head. I knew I had classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It was time to get some help. I began therapy and it was definitely helping but something was missing. When the weather finally warmed up in the spring I remembered the day we got skunked on the Naugatuck and thought of how that fishing had taken my physical pain way. I was hoping that it would take the mental pain away, too.

As I began the season my hopes were realized. It was like an awakening. It seemed like it was one of the few things that made me feel better, or at least normal. On the water there was no IED in the dust, no snipers watching from a building. I forgot about the suicide bombers waiting in the crowds and the unseen enemy setting up his ambush. It was just the fish and me. I could totally concentrate on the presentation of my fly and matching the hatch. I immersed myself in reading the tide and spotting fish on the flats. It was the only way I could escape my mind. When my fishing day was done, I sat along the banks and the shore and gave thanks for a second chance at life. That is when I knew I had turned a corner in recovery.

This year I had several opportunities to fish in some wonderful places. I made my first trip to Alaska for salmon and halibut. I spent weekends at the Cape stalking stripers on the flats. We spent a memorable week in Pulaski chasing salmon, and I spent numerous days learning how to fool the wary trout of the Farmington River in late summer. But what I enjoyed most was relearning the river of my youth, the Mill River in Hamden. Though the late summer was unproductive, I fished it many times in the spring. I remembered my youth, catching my first trout on a fly behind the old fly shop. I remembered when my mother died when I was 9 and my father took us there to tell us. I caught a beautiful rainbow trout 10 minutes later. It was the first trout I had ever released. I have never kept one since. And so when I returned to Connecticut and the war followed me, it was the natural place to go and send it back.

It has been over a year since my life changed forever. Both my physical and mental scars are healing. I have a lot to give thanks for this year. First, my life and the second chance God has given me to enjoy it. I give thanks to my fiancé for all the help getting through this. I think many women have a hard time letting their man go fishing almost every day. She knows that it is my quiet place. The place where there are no explosions or gunfire. My family and friends are amazing, they have been with me through my ups and downs since day one, always with a rod in hand. My father, who has been a busy teacher and coach took time away from his other passions to rekindle his passion for fishing with me. Together we fooled many fish this year.

It has been a long year, next year, when I start my marriage and get out of the Army I know things will change. I may not have the time to fish as often. I will always remember this year as the year that fishing saved me. It's good to be alive.

I clicked out of the other three screens, suddenly the "Deal of the Day," didn't mean much. And in a newsroom full of people, a tear landed right between the "N" and "M" on my keyboard.

That folks, is a sign from God saying, "Son, you got a story to do."

And that would be Staff Sgt. Daniel Laffin's story.

"It's good to be alive."

"Find Him."

— Bowman

That's the entire insightful, leadership role, 30 years of management training, email I got from my ESPNOutdoors.com shotgun toting/duck hunting boss in Arkansas when I forwarded him the War & Fishing email.

John Wayne in 10-point Times New Roman font.

But the guy who sent the email to me had no idea who wrote it, he said it was on the www.CTfisherman.com board under War & Fishing topic, so I dialed it up, and there it was, and it was SIGNED … "Caveman2bravo."

Try googling that name to find someone.

So I sent Bowman a Duck Hunting Christmas Tree Ornament and a note, "I'll get back to you. Happy Holidays."

And then went home and starting emailing a whole bunch of sources in those USA departments that protect us from the commies, using the fake email address I have that looks like they just bought something and not actually snitching to the media. They appreciate when I keep their pension intact that way.

Took about 5 minutes: Staff Sgt. Daniel Timothy Laffin. Even came with a phone number … guess the feds have more blazing internet speed then us ESPN folks.

I called, turns out it was his dad's home phone, 3 minutes of shock that ESPN was calling (dad's a 30-year Hamden, Conn., Phys Ed teacher/track/football coach who was defiantly aware of those four letters — ESPN) another couple of minutes talking about his case of Shingles, this five minutes of small talk from a press guy was starting to reach historic levels so I asked the question I called about, "How's Dan."

And I felt the smile on the other end of the phone go away. For the next 5-10 minutes, I just sat there and listened, the only sound, Peter Laffin talking, low and slow, and me sniffling.

If you are reading this, and you are HUMAN, and you have a son, daughter, brother, sister, nephew, nieces, grandkids, neighbor kids, co-worker kids, ever been to a Little League game, a youth soccer field, Santa's lap in the mall, held training wheels in your hand, bought diapers (even if you didn't know how they worked), sat through some kind of Animals on Ice, read about trains that talked, tried to find Waldo for the 323rd time, bought a clown nightlight … what I heard was a conversation YOU NEVER WANT TO HAVE.

I was listening to a father tell me how his son had got blown up.

And he was telling me this on the 12th day of Christmas.

War & Fishing

Staff Sgt. Daniel Laffin, and a few other members of "A" Company, 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry, were ambushed.

Happened 11/2/2006. A Thursday night, eastern Afghanistan. The Army Humvee was driving down a dirt road. Think back, what were you doing that Thursday night?

Dan Laffin, standing up in the turret, was getting lit up from RPG's (Rocket Propelled Grenades). Out of the night, from both sides of the road shoulder-fired bombs streaked into the Humvee, and landed right next to where Dan was standing.

Dan: "Never saw it coming, caught in a cross-fire. The shrapnel tore through my left shoulder, wrist, face, neck, ear …" He suffered Traumatic Brain Injury, suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, deaf in one ear, except for the constant ringing which tends to drown everything out.

Dan is telling me this standing on the banks of the Farmington River in New Hartford, Conn. He sticks out his left arm and pulls up the sleeve, I see that "most" of his left wrist is still there. "Good thing it's not my casting arm."

Dan could be taken for a growed-up Beaver Cleaver, looks just like him, except for the purple scars on the left side of his face where the shrapnel tore threw. In doing a background look-see into him I saw he is part of the Wounded Warrior Program, actually did the coin toss at the last Harvard-Yale game. Found out he joined, "Pretty quick after 9-11, the bast**ds," was a team leader during the war … this guy is a soldier … a warrior.

Problem was, when he drove up to meet me in his jeep, and opened the door, it wasn't Spartacus 2008 that got out.

It was a child.

A big, goofy looking kid in a knit hat and "Wanna Go Fishing" T-shirt. The boots I was wearing had this kid by a couple of years. If he came in my bar, I'd proof him. Twice.

Much too young to be blowed up, but this is what he said to me, "Got your waders, lets go fishing." And then he was gone, up and over a snow bank, back to help me and his father over the hill, him with shrapnel still inside, the two of us just with OLD inside.

Ovation Pool, the Farmington River Trout Management Area, Father & Son fishing, something that has been going on with Dan and his Dad since Dan was about, "this high," which for those of you not there to see where Pete put his hand, I'd say the height was probably that of a 5 to 6- year-old. Gotta take my word on that.

We spent an hour there, them fishing, me standing on the bank taking pictures. They were chasing a trout, "same crafty guy, but on this river it's got some of the most intelligent trout around. You can see them, they come up and watch the fly, will drift with it a good 5-6 feet, just drifting along watching it, if it doesn't look right, or they see the tippet, bang they're gone."

I was watching the ice, to make sure I didn't fall in, had already arraigned with Dan that should the ice break and I go to drowning, "I'll throw you the camera, don't let it get wet." Seems Dan was looking at the ice for a whole other reason. "You got to match the hatch and when we came here I saw some black caddis (tiny bugs most people swat) on the ice, so that's why I was using the size 22 Griffins Gnat (a VERY small bug looking thing I would have sprayed had it not been in Dan's hand when he showed me it).

It wasn't very long before the guides on Dan's pole kept freezing, Pete's didn't, "Because I put Crisco on my line beforehand and it doesn't freeze up like that, course I could be giving the fish some sort of Cholesterol problem though."

Me: "You guys freezing out there?" In here, the bank that is, I couldn't feel my toes and the camera was getting cranky.

Them: "Nope, we're fine," both peering intense-like at a trout with genius IQ.

Me: "I'll buy the pizza when …"

Them: "Be right there."

A few minutes later we were in the window seat of a pizza joint in New Hartford munching on a large Cheese & Pepperoni, swilling diet cokes and root beer, talking fishing, talking catching, talking recovery.

"I leave the trauma, the flashbacks, the nightmares on the bank, " Dan says in between bites. "I've got to say I was having a rough time with it all, still do, still have nightmares and flashbacks, but not nearly so once I got back to fishing."

I'm sitting across from Pete, he's looking straight past me out the window, hoping he sees 1960-something out there when Dan was young and not having flashbacks about being blown up. I'm a parent, I don't dare look either one of them in the eye.

It was only when Dan got up to pee, that Pete could talk, Father to Father, sorry if this is blowing you in Pete, but this is what he said to me, while Dan was in the John: "I saw the change in him the first day he started fishing again. I could see it in his posture, his shoulders, the slack, the relax was coming back. He was dancing again."

Dancing, Pete explained was the movement that an angler goes through when he is catching a fish … shoulder tweaks, body leans, up on tiptoes, quick arch of the back, face all contorted.

"We got skunked that day, nothing, not even a nibble, but it didn't matter. We were fishing the Mill River, it's OUR river, the one closest to the house, the kids grew up fishing there, it's Dan's comfort place, takes him back to his childhood before, you know, all the bad stuff happened."

We hear the bathroom door close, Pete speeds up, "… and I turn around and there's Dan, just sitting on the bank with this big s**t eating grin on his face, and I knew at that moment, that my Dan was back."

And he was, at the table. He must have heard the words Mill River because he said, "Caught me some pigs there … pulled in an 18-inch brown trout, a 17-inch rainbow." Pete smiled at me, dad to dad.

Down to 2 slices left, waiting for the pizza guy to put them in a bag so Dan could take them home, small talk that was huge in scope. "Every puddle you go by," Pete's saying while getting up from the table, "There's promise in every puddle, when you are thinking that you're a fisherman."

"Yeah, I can never pass a river without looking at it," says Dan while getting his father another soda, "Always scan it looking for a bubble, a ripple, a hatch."

Standing by my minivan, Dan tells me his dream was to be a fireman, or Connecticut DEP officer, "But don't know if that can happen now, what with this." THIS, were the wounds he was pointing to. Still on Active Duty "Medical Hold" and based in New Haven, he told me marriage is just down the road, "to a saint of a lady, Anne with an E, she'll kill me if there's no E in there." There is, and the wedding is scheduled for July 28th.

And then Dan Laffin stepped forward and shook my hand while saying thank you, to me. And then he did IT AGAIN.

Then he and his dad climbed into his jeep, and drove away. Pete with a smile on his face, Dan with a new goofy ESPN knit hat on.

And as I drove home I listened to my iPod Christmas Playlist filled with Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas songs (yeah I'm a sap for this stuff this time of year). Up in front of me the Laffins turned right and drove out of sight, I drove straight on Route 44 with Bing and Andy singing, me with a old napkin up to my eyes.

It was the double "Thank you, Mr. Barone," that got me.

No, THANK YOU Staff Sgt. Daniel Timothy Laffin … thank you for showing me during this time of year, that there really is a Santa …

… and he's wearing a Purple Heart.

— db

Don Barone is a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Other stories of his can be found on Amazon.com. For questions, comments or story ideas you can reach him at: db@DonBaroneOutdoors.com