When he opened the truck door and stepped out into the Los Pinos area of Carson National Forest, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ruben Roybal took “this big huge deep breath, and for the first five minutes just stood and smelled the beginning of the rain,” said Andrew Black, public lands field director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Such moments of connection are common, reports Black, who led a veterans’ fly-fishing trip July 29-30 to the Los Pinos river in the proposed San Antonio Special Management Area of Northern New Mexico and the Conejos River in the Spruce Hole area of southern Colorado.
Roybal, a combat veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, is one of the participants in the program. Roybal has been fishing with Black for about two years now, and continues to learn new techniques.
On this trip he learned a method called Euro-nymphing (or Czech-nymphing). “You’re going by sight and feel. You’re going along with the flow of the water,” Black said of the technique.
Roybal took to it right away. Black watched him “catch a fish using a technique of fly-fishing he’s never used before, and he’s smiling like a little kid.”
It wasn’t always like that for Roybal.
A long road to the river
Like many other veterans, Roybal returned from his deployments heavily burdened. Without the skills and resources to manage his combat experiences or his feelings about them, he was forced to carry them with him everywhere. Even when he wasn’t consciously aware of them, they were constantly present, undermining other areas of his life.
Roybal threw himself into the management of his landscaping business in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and into family life. Still, just below the activities of everyday life were deep feelings of anger, resentment and guilt. Guilt for his brothers who didn’t come home, and for things, “I didn’t have control of but participated in,” Roybal said. “Sometimes we become what we despise.”
Present-day Roybal, who smiles at the rain and delights at catching a fish by a new method, wasn’t even a distant dream during those days.
“For 15 years I didn’t find anything funny,” he said. Coupled with his professional drive, the anger and loss so many veterans experience drove him to drink excessively.
Many veterans cope with post-traumatic stress in the ways that they can, often unable to find suitable help. Each day in the United States, 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide, and the suicide rate among veterans in 1.5 times higher than among nonveterans.
It wasn’t until he reached his breaking point that Roybal could accept the truth of the Veterans Administration slogan: It takes the strength and the courage of a warrior to ask for help.
After a night of drinking, Roybal sat with a “.45 in one hand and pictures of my kids in the other.” It was then that he knew he needed help.
He drove to the Veterans Administration hospital in Albuquerque.
He checked himself in with the Beacon Team for a month in what he calls “the puzzle factory,” where he was able to confront the issues that had driven him to suicidal ideation. Knowing that “alcohol and suicide aren’t what my brothers would want for me,” he chose to honor his brothers in arms by staying in treatment. He entered a year-long program for substance abuse.
In the early years of staying sober, there were times that Roybal remembers parking in front of a liquor store and sitting in the car, sometimes for an hour. Then he would drive off into the mountains. “There are no liquor stores there.”
That return to the outdoors, where Roybal spent much of his early years, was an important part of his healing process, as was breaking out of isolation and the belief that he had to do everything by himself.
“You’re not going to find the answers sitting on the couch by yourself,” he said.
Ten years on, Roybal is still sober, and participates actively in many programs, including some at the same Santa Fe VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic that was instrumental in his recovery. He engages in programs for veterans and volunteers in his Las Vegas community.
The best part of becoming sober for Roybal is that now, “I have nothing to hide.” He speaks often and freely about his journey in the hopes that it might help others to seek help as he did.
A home in the world
The experience of the outdoors “can bring a sense of healing and peace. A place of quiet and calm where veterans can relax and destress,” said Black. Veterans fought to protect not only our communities, “but also our public lands and the access and opportunities on these lands.”
“I would recommend highly that everyone spend time in the outdoors and see what it has to offer them,” said Roybal. “You can walk into the forest angry as a bear, and 30 minutes later, you feel completely different.”
Once you get outside, “You have to stop long enough, stay still, to find your calling,” Roybal said. “Don’t be afraid of the calm, still quiet.”