From Colorado to Afghanistan to Montana — Post Military, Phillip Churchill Finds a Home In Bozeman and a Family with Warriors and Quiet Waters.
After his second deployment to Afghanistan, Phillip Churchill returned to his home state of Colorado. The month was May. Before starting at Montana State University in August to finish his degree, Churchill figured he would spend some much needed time with family, save some money and indulge in a new growing passion — fly fishing. Receiving a bit of Intel from a friend’s father, Churchill parked alongside the Arkansas, a river he had never fished. While piecing his rod together and putting his waders on, a man approached and asked which way he was going to walk. Churchill informed the man that he wasn’t familiar with the river and that he would gladly walk whichever direction the man wasn’t planning on going. With that, the man headed downstream. Before getting too far, he turned around and approached Churchill again and asked to look at his rig. After a quick inspection, the man suggested a different pattern and headed back downstream. Just like before, he didn’t make it too far before turning back around and approaching Phillip a third time. This time, the man said “You know what, why don’t you join me today, I’ll show you a few good holes.”
Below, Churchill talks about how the generosity he experienced that day changed the rest of his life. He also shares a little bit about his time in the military, his involvement with Warriors and Quiet Waters.
Simms: Tell us a little bit more about that day on the Arkansas. Why was it such an important day for you?
Churchill: Initially, it was just the generosity I saw. Here I am, young, inexperienced, tattooed and I was on this man’s river getting ready to fish his stretch. When he offered a fly suggestion, I thought that was super cool but when he invited me to tag along and learn, I was blown away. He told me his name was Shawn Wayment and asked what I did. I introduced myself and told him I recently got out of the army and was hanging in Colorado until it was time to start school at MSU in August. Long story short, he and I served in same unit 15 or 20 years or so apart. Pretty small world when you think about it. For the rest of the summer, Shawn was my fishing buddy and to this day, every time I visit family in Colorado, he and I get together. At the time, I was still fairly new to fly fishing. Fishing with Shawn for those few months really sped up the learning curve and made me love fly fishing even more.
Simms: How did you first get into fly fishing?
Churchill: After my first deployment, my dad signed us up for a fly fishing school in Vail while I was home on post deployment leave. We both went into it looking at it as a great way to spend some time together and really just catch up. Neither of us had ever fly fished before but we both had an amazing weekend. The guides were awesome and super patient and we also just met some all around great people.
Simms: Can you talk a little bit about your time in the military?
Churchill: Sure. I’m 29 now, I joined the army in June of 2008 and completed two tours, both in Afghanistan.
Simms: Was there any reason you chose that path?
Churchill: My dad is retired army and it gave our family a good life. After I was done with high school, my parents encouraged me to go to college. So, I went to a small Liberal Arts School in Colorado and in my Junior year, a childhood friend of mine was killed in Iraq. When I went home for his funeral, I sat down with my paretns and told them I was done with school and that I’d be enlisting. They were incredibly supportive. That was kinda the tipping point, I wanted to feel like I was doing my part.
Simms: Why did you choose MSU? Did fishing have anything to do with your decision?
Churchill: I was stationed in North Carolina when it was time to get out of the service and because I wanted to finish my degree, I obviously started looking at colleges. A big part of it was, I wanted to go somewhere that was, I don’t know, quieter I guess. I narrowed it down to Northern Arizona, University of Montana and Montana State. I had never set foot in Montana, let alone Bozeman but in the end, there was just something about the idea of living in Bozeman — Plus everybody knows, MSU is the Harvard of the Rockies. To answer your question — yes — fishing was absolutely why I chose to come here.
Simms: How did you become acquainted with WQW?
Churchill: I wasn’t combat wounded so I never participated. However, when I got here, I heard about the organization through the grapevine. For obvious reasons, I loved what they stood for and wanted to get involved. I was new to Bozeman, a non-traditional college student, not making many friends right away because I still had my guard up. I signed up for a fly tying class at the Bozeman Angler and the instructor was Lawrence Stuemke who is now WQW’s Director of Operations. We were tying, I took my jacket off and he saw my KIA bracelets and asked if I was interested in volunteering and I of course jumped on it. It was just one of those things that was meant to be.
Simms: In your experience volunteering with WQW, how have you seen it effect participants?
Churchill: You know, I think a big part of its impact has to do with the fact that guys get out here and feel safe for the first time in a really long time. It’s a place where they don’t have to have their guard up. Hyper vigilance is a huge thing in PTSD and means you’re always on guard, jumpy and just think something bad is going to happen at any second. Being on the water has a crazy way of easing that stress.
Simms: Do you have any thoughts about the act of fly fishing itself that helps contributes to what you just explained?
Churchill: Being on the pond is one thing but there’s something very special about floating in a drift boat. You’ve got moving water, you have to pick your target, cast, mend, keep an eye on the fly etc, etc. Fly fishing itself requires a lot of focus, especially when you are new to it. I think that because pretty much all the warriors are new, the actual act of fishing doesn’t allow time for hyper vigillance. I think the river has the power to slow everything down in your mind and that joined with the intense focus required to fly fish, intrusive thoughts are easy to block out and I think that’s where the relief and therapy comes from. Fly fishing and catching fish is fun and guys love it but it’s when the warriors start reaping the benefits of their mind being put at ease, that’s what it’s all about.
Simms: As a volunteer, how as working with WQW effected you?
Churchill: It’s really hard to put into words. I struggled with my transition out of the military. I think one thing that was missing in my life post military were the tight bonds and that feeling of being a part of something. Working with WQW and the warriors have undoubtedly fulfilled a gap in my life. It’s just a great family to be a part of and while I’m there to help the warriors, it’s the warriors that end up helping me more often than not. If you ask anybody who has volunteered with WQW, they will say the same thing.