The following appears in the July issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
Amid a spectacular backdrop – the luxury yacht, the azure blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, the leaping marlin – some of the most important moments Mike Nares spent off the Baja coast were sitting at a table.
Southern California native Nares was one of seven veterans invited on a Cabo San Lucas, Mexico-based trip in April. All of them had been wounded in battle and, like Nares, suffered from various symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and/or major injuries. The boat, donated for the trip by Anthony Hsieh, CEO of lending company loanDepot, was just as much floating cathartic vessel as it was fishing vacation craft.
“We were down there on the boat and everyone was just sitting around the table and sharing their stories. They were able to connect with each other and how they’re handling the parts of their recovery,” says Calvin Coolidge, executive director of the Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit that helps wounded veterans and assisted in setting up the trip.
“They were able to offer each other advice – that peer-to-peer counseling, ‘This is how I got through this particular struggle.’ It really set up a great environment to not only revitalize but also help them heal – find new strategies for that healing journey. And believe me, it is a healing journey.”
For Nares, the hardest part of his journey – he hopes – is behind him. But even after three memorable days of fishing, fun and friendship, he and his brothers in arms understand what they’ve been through, what they lost and what they have found on their journeys.
“Getting out of the military wasn’t something that I wanted. I wanted to do 20-plus years and didn’t get the chance,” Nares says. “But just being able to be around other people who have served, it’s like being back in the military, which I think is the greatest honor in the world to serve the glorious flag. It was a great experience to be able to be around everybody else. To hear their background and know what they went through was important.”
FOR AMERICA’S VETERANS, WHATtoday is known by the acronym PTSD has likely been affecting troops since at least the Revolutionary War (terms like nostalgia, shell shock and battle fatigue have all entered the lexicon over time), if not before. But nobody really acknowledged it officially by that name until 1980, just seven years removed from U.S. withdrawal in Vietnam. It’s now become an accepted reality of the difficulties servicemen and -women are susceptible to after their time in combat ends.
Nares, who grew up in suburban Vista, 40 miles north of San Diego, served in the Army from the time he graduated high school until being medically discharged in 2011. Between that time, he had three deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A staff sergeant when he left the Army, Nares was awarded two Purple Heart and two Bronze Star medals. In 2010, he suffered traumatic brain and back injuries when he was caught up in an ambush in Afghanistan. Nares also saw combat in Ramadi, Iraq, site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq War in the mid-2000s and was once controlled by ISIS before being driven out of the city by Iraqi forces in 2016.
“I fought in Ramadi twice, in 2004 and 2006, when it was then considered the most dangerous place on Earth. I always thought that I saw more stuff than anyone else did, and for a long time that’s what I (assumed),” Nares says. “But then hearing all these other people and other veterans tell their stories, it made me realize that I’m not the only one that experienced that type of war. It’s actually really awesome to hear their stories.”
That’s one of the most difficult aspects of overcoming the effects of PTSD. When Nares was discharged, he shut down completely in terms of sharing the details of what happened on the battlefield. Save for his mother, nobody seemed worthy of a recreation of events.
He was hardly alone in his silence. The last thing returning veterans want to do is recall the atrocities they witnessed, the wounds they suffered and the memories of fighting alongside comrades they’d left behind.
“A lot of times, that first time where you’re willing to tell the story, it’s going to be amongst people who were over there in similar circumstances, who understand than it would be with a civilian or with someone who never served,” Coolidge says.
It took Nares two years of silence before he began to interact with other wounded vets, the only others who could possibly relate. Still, all Nares wanted to do – futilely, given the nature of his injuries – was return to the Middle East.
“Getting out was the hardest thing, knowing that I couldn’t be there with my soldiers or anyone that I served with anymore, and not being part of a family. I was living with a family and now I was all by myself,” he says.
“All I knew was the military; as soon as I’d gotten out of high school, I joined. When my time was up – sorry, this is bringing back memories – I missed it, a lot.”
So it was only fitting that Nares’ first step in the right direction was to open up once he began interacting with others who had similar experiences to his. Who else could understand the hell these brave men and women endured over there?
How far has Nares come? If you ask him about his tours of duty, he’ll gladly talk about some – not all – of his time in uniform.
“I don’t like to tell everything that I’ve been through, because some of it is too intense to even want to put out there into words. But now if anyone has the time to listen, I’m willing to tell my story,” he says.
“It’s my healing process now to be able to let everyone know what I’ve been through and that I’m not messed up – that this is who I am. I had PTSD and a traumatic brain injury and other things. I don’t mind telling my story to anyone who asks – civilian or someone in the military. It’s just a better way to heal for me.”
LONG BEFORE HE PUT his life on the line for his country, Mike Nares was a fisherman. Vista was just inland from the coastal city of Oceanside, so it was a convenient destination for saltwater fishing.
“I was always down in Oceanside, where my Uncle Frank would take us fishing in the harbor. We’d go out 3:30 or 4 a.m. and catch live bait; we’d go in with our little shrimp pumps and stick it in the water and grab shrimp for at least an hour,” Nares says. “And then we’d go fishing from there on and out. And we’d stay out until it was time to go back in, which was usually around 6 at night.”
Once he came back for good, fishing wasn’t exactly Nares’ priority, but the methodical return to a more civilian life – he now calls Ventura home – has provided enough peace to where fishing can be a normal part of his life again.
“I’ve got my friends here in Ventura who like to fish a lot too. We’ll try to get back out there and try to catch some perch and halibut,” Nares says. “It’s relaxing to be on the water. I don’t like to go too far out into the ocean because I’m actually afraid of sharks, but since I got out and I’ve been going back out quite a bit. I want to go out more now after being out on that boat. It made my drive for fishing a little bit bigger than it was.”
Coolidge and his colleagues at the Freedom Alliance regularly arrange outdoor adventures for injured veterans like Nares, who also went to Alaska in 2016. Hsieh was honored to lend his yacht for the seven vets (a combination from the Army and Marines).
“These brave Americans have sacrificed so much for our country,” he said in a press release.
“It’s truly life-changing. It provides camaraderie for these veterans out of the service and who have been wounded,” adds Coolidge of the trips his organization offers. “It provides them with time together, to talk to each other and to often work through a lot of the things that they could be struggling with.It refreshes them and gives them energy to keep on healing. And it helps them to thrive in this post-military stage in their lives.”
That the fishing was epic proved to be a bonus, but the seven participants had an experience they’d never forget. Cabo is known for its marlin fishing, and the majestic fish that make anglers work hard to get them back to the boat didn’t disappoint.
“The passion for marlin was incredible. It’s crazy – I’ve never fished for marlin before, and to see the excitement, and when I caught my first one was at the end of the trip. It was probably one of the coolest things ever. My arms hurt, that was for sure. And they still hurt for a couple days after,” Nares says.
“I grabbed the reel and rod and I went to town. If it weren’t for the captain, Steve, bringing the marlin to me, it would have been a longer fight, that’s for sure. He was an amazing captain who really knows what he’s doing. Without that I probably would have had to switch off because my arms were already starting to burn by the time we got the marlin up.”
Everyone got emotional watching the scene unfold.
“Oh gosh, it’s heartwarming; it’s encouraging; it’s humbling,” Coolidge says. “It was all a team effort. They helped each other out. To see that, and all the things that they learned in the military and how effective they are as a team, it was awesome. When they weren’t fishing they were telling stories to each other, opening up. Just being able to be a small part in making something like this happen, you know you’re doing something good and making a difference in service members’ lives.”
YOU DON’T EXPERIENCE THEhorrors of war, carry around the physical and mental scars from Iraq and Afghanistan and return to normalcy without veering off course more than once. Even Nares, while in a far better place than others who continue to battle their war-time demons, needs a rock like his girlfriend, Kimberly Schrader, to help him get through every day.
“It’s nonstop. I’ve had lots of highs but I’ve had my lows. There have been days where I’ve been feeling good, and then two minutes later I’ve been in depression because of just something that reminded me of being over there,” Nares says. “My girlfriend’s been a really big supporter and she’s always trying to help me. She can tell when I’m not feeling right; my face changes, I guess, and I never knew that. And she always spots it out and helps me through it.”
More than once during a conference call interview, Nares apologized as he struggled to put into words answers to questions about the past, the present and future. “I’ve not very good at this.”
But he knows support is there, whether it’s a confidant in his inner circle such as Schrader, the brothers in arms who caught marlin with him and made each other feel connected during those tableside chats, Coolidge and his partners at the Freedom Alliance who work tirelessly to make veterans feel appreciated, and philanthropists like Hsieh.
“I just wanted to say thank you to Anthony and also to Freedom Alliance for putting this trip together. Without these guys I think there would be a lot more struggles,” Nares says.
“It’s amazing to see someone like Anthony, who’s a true patriot. You don’t have to serve to be a patriot.” CS