Chad Brown, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm during the Gulf War and Operation Restore Hope Somalia, struggles today with PTSD. He has found that nature—and rivers and fly fishing in particular—help him to manage his condition, and that realization led him to found Soul River Inc., a nonprofit that connects inner-city youth of color and veterans to the outdoors. Soul River specializes in expeditions, called deployments, in which veterans lead youth into national parks, wildlife refuges, and other wild and remote places. The missions, which combine advocacy, leadership training, and environmental education, are helping to create conservation leaders of tomorrow. Soul River has taken Brown and his students from the remote backcountry to Washington, D.C., to meet members of Congress and advocate for public lands. Brown, an avid fly fisherman, spoke to Pew about his work, and the need to make overdue repairs at national parks.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A: My salvation came from the river. After a career in the Navy that pingponged me from Kuwait and Somalia to Cuba and Antarctica, I tried to return to normalcy.” I stayed busy—and ambitious—as possible, earning degrees in communication design and photography and eventually landing, in early 2010, in Portland as a senior art director at a creative agency. Soon, the weight of my PTSD grew heavy. I was in a really dark place, fighting my demons. I started losing track of the days, which eventually cost me my job. Slowly, I sought support at the VA hospital. After a failed suicide attempt, I found healing in nature through the art of fly fishing. Eventually, this path led me to launch Soul River Inc.
A: Our national parks are so important to our youth. It is their future and their opportunity to create the memories they deserve for themselves. I am saying this because youth of color and of urban communities don’t always have the opportunity to explore our national parks—mostly due to financial and transportation barriers—or to create memories for themselves in these places, which should be accessible to all. Veterans served our country, and many died for our country and for the freedom for all people to roam our parks and take part in that grand experience. Our public lands heal the soul and serve as an antidote, especially for our youth and for veterans fighting depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury.
A: National parks are large treasured areas of public land that is set aside to protect natural and cultural resources. They are also protected places that are important for our future and for education to our youth. Repairing our parks is a must and should be non-negotiable for the people of the United States. It is essential to have places to wander into nature and explore freedom. Our veterans need green spaces like the national parks to find healing and rest. Our parks should have an ongoing, strategic, sustainable plan to fund these repairs.
A: Some fellow veterans and I met with members of Congress on Capitol Hill and with Ryan Zinke in 2017, the secretary of the interior at that time. Over many conversations, we discussed why repairing and maintaining the national parks is critical for our veterans and for our youth.
A: Bringing our youth into national parks to explore wild spaces creates moments of awe and inspires the mind. When these things are aligned, our youth realize the importance of our parks, and they understand how special these places are as they grow into new leaders, and stewards of our public lands and wildlife.