Rather Be Fishing

In an outpost of war, a soldier and angler sets up shop.

American Angler
July/August 2011

Several months ago I received an email from a soldier, whose subject line read, “Afghanistan’s First and Only Fly Shop.” Sgt. Matthew Brugeman explained that he was a squad leader in Bayonet Company with the Army 4th Infantry Division, currently deployed in Afghanistan. When not patrolling, Brugeman wrote, he liked to tie flies to “get away from the harsh moments of war.”

In fact, he and a buddy had recently taken a giant shipping box that originally contained some of their uniforms and rebuilt it into a tying bench. The bench is about five feet by eight feet, and on most nights, their little “fly shack” was home away from home.

In recent months, Matthew had begun teaching his fellow soldiers to tie flies. It seems the simple act of creation in a world bent on destruction helped relieve the stress that came from living in one of the deadliest places on earth, the Arghandab Valley. His company had suffered a high casualty rate, he said, and “getting my mind off of that is important to helping me stay focused on the mission at hand.” However, supplying his makeshift fly shop was a struggle, and he asked whether we could help him out with any tying materials, tools, or even some extra copies of the magazine. We immediately sent a box of back issues of American Angler, Fly Tyer, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. Later, we shipped him a couple of vises, an unused beginner’s tying kit, and miscellaneous other materials.

At one point, I asked him if he’d ever had a chance to put the flies they were tying to use. He replied: “About a twenty-minute walk from me is the Arghandab River. I am planning on trying to wet a line there soon. No rod here yet, but I’m working on getting one built and also having my old rod sent over so I can teach casting classes. It would probably be frowned on if I went fishing in the middle of a combat patrol, but … as any fly fisherman knows, it’s hard to pass up fishy water. I don’t even know if there are fish in that river. I just want to say that I fly-fished in Afghanistan. Guys north of me have done it, but it’s a little safer up there. Our river is sometimes the prime battleground.” As Sergeant Brugeman was waiting on his fly rod, a bridge “went out” on the only road accessing his location, and at that point, his company had no resupply for the next two weeks.

About a month later, Bin Laden was dead, and the predictable questions of mission began to circulate: Was it time to bring them home?

Shortly thereafter, the emails tapered off, and the last one I received was back in April. Matthew thanked me for the magazines, politely apologized for not writing lately, and explained that it was harder to reply now that the “spring fighting season” was upon them. I went on to taking care of business on my end, and he on his.

About a month later, Bin Laden was dead, and the predictable questions of mission began to circulate: Was it time to bring them home? Do we need more troops or fewer? Are we systematically killing the enemy, or cutting heads off a hydra?

I can’t say, but what I do know is that a decade later, it’s sometimes too easy to forget that we—or more precisely they—are still over there at all, until those occasions when reality hits home. Like the Christmas Eve when a co-worker’s son was gravely wounded by Taliban fire, later to lose his leg. Or the news a couple of months ago that a prominent member of the fly-fishing industry had lost a son in Afghanistan. Or the recent headline that our best men had killed their worst.

And now here we are and there they are—still fighting, still making the ultimate sacrifice.

Next time I pick up a rod and head to the river, I’ll try to remind myself that most of them would rather be where I am than where they are. I’ll take a moment to think about a simple request from a fellow angler, a fly tier, and a soldier. ✦