For seven years, Dan Laffin, 36, of North Haven, Conn., served in the Army National Guard. He enlisted following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Halfway through his tour in Afghanistan, in 2006, he was wounded when he was hit by several rock propel grenades while in combat. Laffin was banged up, but luckily his limbs remain intact. He received a Purple Heart at the completion of his service. He turned to fly fishing as a mental therapeutic outlet and eventually founded the Northeast branch of Rivers of Recovery.
Rivers of Recovery, a national nonprofit, provides wounded veterans a unique rehabilitative treatment that takes participants on fly fishing adventures. An industry leader in veteran rehabilitation, the organization utilizes medically-designed curriculum coupled with outdoor recreational activities to treat combat veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, minor traumatic brain injuries, stress, anxiety and depression. Its mission is to empower veterans to reconnect with nature and each other to reduce the negative effects of combat and improve the process of reintegration back into civilian life.
Approximately 400,000 to 600,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to suffer from psychological injuries. An additional 320,000 suffer from probable traumatic brain injuries. Rivers of Recovery is an enjoyable, cost-effective, medically-proven and sustainable treatment. Veteran participants embark on four-day, all-inclusive overnight fly fishing trips led by professional guides. Fishing equipment, lodging and meals are included. Funding for the program is provided by individual donors and corporate sponsorships.
“Many veterans face financial burdens after service and miss out on extracurricular activities, such as sports, because they simply cannot afford it,” says Laffin. “The business model for Rivers to Recovery works to remove the financial barriers to pursuing sports or other passions, thus allowing veterans to enjoy life a little bit more.”
In 2008, Laffin participated in his first Rivers of Recovery fly fishing trip in Utah where he connected with veterans from similar backgrounds, many of whom remain his friends today. He was so inspired by his relaxing experience on the water that he attended the Sweetwater Travel Company’s Fly Fishing Guide School in Montana and worked with the national nonprofit to start the Northeast branch.
“Fly fishing trips provide veterans with a lifelong skill, like golf – something you will never be perfect at, but something you can do until you are no longer capable in old age,” says Lappin. “There are no professional counselors on the trip. Rather, our trips are all about nature, sport and socialization. If participants want to sit along the water or around the campfire and talk about their time in the military, that’s great. If they want to talk about cars or football, that’s okay too.”
In order to start the Northeast branch, Laffin needed a boat. He turned to Work Vessels for Vets, Inc., a Connecticut nonprofit organization that equips America’s returning veterans with the tools they need to start a business or pursue career education or training. The nonprofit reviewed his business plan for Rivers to Recovery and awarded him with his first drift boat, valued at $5,000, which if rented would have cost Laffin $2,000 annually.
“There is a lot of disconnect between transition service members and the communities they are going to live in,” says Laffin. “Small organizations like Work Vessels for Vets are important to help re-engage veterans into society, with other vets and with civilians. I am really proud of what the Northeast branch of Rivers of Recovery has become. We go on four trips annually and have a growing waitlist of veterans ready for our next adventure. I take groups out, but also make sure to get individuals out on the water as needed. It’s great!”
During the week, Laffin works as a veteran representative for the Connecticut Department of Labor. On weekends, the husband and father of two pre-school aged girls contracts with local outfitting companies to run customized fishing trips. This year, he will lead two of the four fly fishing trips for Rivers of Recovery Northeast each year. Typically, he runs them all. He hopes to continue to grow the organization and host annual more trips in the next five years.
Salute American Vodka donates one dollar of every bottle sold to support veteran organizations like Work Vessels for Veterans. To learn more, visit our mission page.