Veterans find healing and community on Wisconsin’s rivers
It’s not a coincidence that veterans and first responders are active in the conservation community. I had some conversations with a few Wisconsin vets to learn more about their connection with the outdoors.
Jeff Butler leads veterans to find a different kind of therapy
Jeff Butler has fished for as long as he can remember. He grew up visiting a lake house in northern Minnesota, and he fished with his grandparents and World War II veteran father. Times were different then. When he was as young as nine years old, if his mother needed milk from the store, Jeff hopped in the motor boat to fetch groceries across the lake. He promised his mother he would only stop to fish on the way there or the way back, not both.
After high school, Jeff enlisted in the Army. He served during the Vietnam War and was stationed in Germany. His life and his career ebbed and flowed until 1989 when he began leading paddling expeditions for juvenile offenders in the Boundary Waters. The long trips with 15 to 20 portages were meant to challenge youth with tough love, but were actually opportunities for deep healing.
“These were meant to be tough experiences for them to get through,” said Jeff. “But I had a problem with that because I wanted them to have good experiences. I told them to learn what they needed to learn, but stay out of jail and don’t extend their stay in the program. Over time, I started shifting my thoughts about the trips and they became more meaningful to me. They were bigger than canoe trips. It was a process I watched happen in me as well as watching the boys go through it.”
Another opportunity arose for him through Outward Bound in Minnesota. Vietnam veterans won a lawsuit against the government over the health impacts of the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant. Proceeds from the settlement included grants to Outward Bound to start wilderness experiences to help vets with post-traumatic stress. Jeff was perfect for the job. From Outward Bound to working with the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, Jeff focused more on getting men and women who served in the military out on the water.
“That’s when I saw there was something powerful in taking people out on the river,” he said. “When I take vets fly fishing in my drift boat, they aren’t thinking of anything else but being on the river. They are focused on being right there in the moment. I don’t have to deliver any message to them. I just lead them to the water and let the river do its magic. I believe water is healing. When you’re focused on the fly rod or the water, even if you’re in rapids, it takes away all the stuff going on in vets’ heads.”
After the Iraq War, the need for veteran-led fishing tours changed. Jeff worked with the National Parks Service and the Vets on the River program to help veterans who had PTSD, who had combat injuries, and women whose military service was too often unrecognized.
“I tell them they don’t have to talk about what happened in Iraq,” said Butler. “When we’re out on the boat, you don’t need to talk about the gory stuff. We’re just here. Focus on the banks and the rocks, or just watch the trees go by. At the end of the trip I tell them, ‘you just had this experience and now wherever you go, you can come back here any time you want by remembering this place. You can remember the eagle, the deer you saw. You can always come back.’ It’s the simplest form of therapy they need. And it doesn’t come in a pill bottle or in a group in a room.”
James “Groovy” Cocroft finds fun and healing in nature
James “Groovy” Cocroft used to fish a lot with his dad. He was born into a tight-knit family in their Milwaukee home on 26th and Atkinson, and was nicknamed “Groovy” by his aunt because he was a good kid. Groovy always had a special connection to water through long weekends fishing with his father and siblings. He also attended the Hawley Environmental School which emphasized an education rooted in nature.
Though his military career took him away from fishing in Wisconsin rivers when he joined the Navy in 1987, he managed to find a way to fish or look for aquatic wildlife on beaches and boats around the world. As an Operations Specialist, Groovy’s service spanned twenty years, including tours in Operation Desert Storm, the Kosovo War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since he retired in 2007, Groovy has struggled with anxiety and symptoms of PTSD. He drifted away from his love of fishing and the outdoors.
“When I got home, I suppressed a lot of things,” he said. “But I got a call from a student who was in the Coast Guard, and he asked me if I wanted to go fishing with a bunch of veterans. It was a fishing tournament and I was leery about being around people I didn’t know. But I went to the Big Bass Battle in August of 2020 and had the time of my life. It brought back floods of memories of fishing with my family and in the Navy.”
The reintroduction to fishing came at a perfect time for Cocroft. The stress of the pandemic combined with PTSD, sleep disruption, and social disconnection were too much. He sought help and started new therapies to cope. Groovy now volunteers with Wisconsin Hero Outdoors. Like Jeff Butler’s experience, Groovy realized that while he helps others discover the joy of getting outside, it’s therapeutic and healing for him too.
Groovy says he’s noticed that the COVID crisis allowed more vets to speak publicly about their own emotional health. He talked about this with other veterans so they also wouldn’t feel alone or ashamed of the difficulties of coping with stress and PTSD. Getting outside, being with others, and experiencing the healing power of nature had a renewed value during the pandemic.
At times, Cocroft might be the only person of color on a fishing tour or group activity outdoors.
“It’s a struggle when people give you the side eye,” said Groovy. “But I think back to what my mother told me. ‘If they give you the side eye, it’s their problem, not yours.’ When I go out fishing with my cousins, I don’t think about it at all. But when I’m the only person of color, it goes through your mind, but I’m still going to have fun.”
Peter Nicoloff says vets are wired to serve
“Our rivers in Wisconsin,” explains Peter Nicoloff of Brown Deer, “you can go there any time. It’s like our highways. You can go wherever, whenever you want to go. It’s special to Wisconsin and it’s an amazing resource.”
Peter started taking friends out on fly fishing trips. When the trips got more frequent, he turned it into a side hustle, mainly, he admits, to justify to his wife how much time he was spending on the water. Through Milwaukee River Fly Fishing, Peter gets to show people the unexpected beauty of the Milwaukee River.
“You can ride your bike to Glendale, Lincoln Park, take a three or four minute walk up the trail, and suddenly you’re IN nature,” said Pete. “You can catch beautiful, native fish out there. My local rivers have become my refuge. You can go out for an hour or two, bird watch or fish, take pictures, paint, whatever. It’s a beautiful place to be in.”
Peter’s refuge on the river offers him a break from the stress of his career as a Navy-trained VA nurse and his studies in the doctorate of nursing program for psychiatric and mental health at UW Milwaukee. He sees a clear connection between relief from acute trauma issues and the healing functions of outdoor recreation.
“It’s important, even for me, to ‘reset’ by being in nature,” Peter explains. “It is healing. It helps combat vets with PTSD, but also for other things in life: violence, trauma, losing a caregiver at a young age… Outdoors pursuits allow you to focus on a task, contemplate it. Any time you spend time outdoors – especially if there is hardship or difficulty on a trip – you learn you can overcome these issues. It can be small. Even if you are pushing through rain or bad conditions, you learn something about yourself.”
Peter recognizes that while there are disagreements about why we go to war, what should unite us is conservation, environmental ethics, and preserving our land, water, and wildlife. He believes natural resource protection should be a bipartisan effort, and public access to land and water is a uniquely American right for all people.
“When you’re serving in uniform, you feel you are able to preserve these rights. But I also see this work being done at home by groups like River Alliance. Military vets relate to that. That’s why veterans are so involved with conservation advocacy groups. They are used to serving for other people, getting their hands dirty, taking on complex tasks, and problem solving. Veterans organizations through Trout Unlimited, Wisconsin Hero Outdoors, and Vets on the Fly are well suited to defend these resources on the homefront.”
How to get involved
Jeff Butler tells vets, “you served to protect the country, now enjoy what you protected.” Find organizations that welcome veterans and first responders on wilderness tours, fishing trips, and community service days below.
TU Vets on the Fly – Milwaukee
TU Vets on the Fly – Southern Wisconsin
Trout Unlimited Veterans Service Partnership – local chapters
Find a watershed group in your area on River Alliance of Wisconsin’s watershed map.
Are we missing a group that connects veterans with Wisconsin’s waters? Let us know.
– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water. Become a member of River Alliance of Wisconsin today.