Nonprofit Leader Leads National Park Trips to Heal Veterans and Inspire Youth

Navy veteran sees transformative power in nature—and applauds new park funding

Nonprofit Leader Leads National Park Trips to Heal Veterans and Inspire Youth
Chad Brown
Chad Brown, founder and trip leader of the outdoor leadership and education nonprofit Soul River Inc., and his service dog, Axe, in the Arctic Circle on one of the organization’s missions with youth and veterans.
Chad Brown

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.

Chad Brown
Chad Brown and his service dog, Axe, take a break from a 45-mile run on the Ivishak River in the Arctic Circle with youth and veterans.
Chad Brown

Q: Tell us how you got into fly fishing, and how you came to see the national parks as critical to both your passion and people’s appreciation for the outdoors.

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.

Chad Brown
Chad Brown, far left, leads urban youth from Portland, Oregon, on a day of fishing.
Chad Brown

Q: How important are the national parks to your work with veterans and students?

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.

Chad Brown
A Soul River group poses for a photo during a deployment in the Arctic National Wild-life Refuge. Brown is at far right with his service dog, Axe.
Chad Brown

Q: You also have a retail store and fly-fishing outfitting business. As you know, the national parks are in need of overdue repairs totaling around $13 billion. Fortunately, Congress recently passed a bill that will fund around half that amount over the next five years. How important are park repairs to small businesses such as yours?

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.

Zinke
Chad Brown (far right, front) attends a meeting with other veterans and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017 in Washington.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Q: You worked with Pew to advocate for passage of legislation to provide that funding. Tell us about that.

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.

Q: How do you think your work will help at-risk youth make lasting connections with our national park system?

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.

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