Fishing Life: Surviving PTSD by Getting Outside

It took me ten years to be able to talk about what little I talk about. The daily struggles are very real, but I keep moving forward. I try not to get hung up and spin my wheels. I have to keep doing things, I have to keep fishing and bowhunting. The alternative is sitting and dwelling on the bad, and that's how guys end up pulling that trigger.
-Mike Wooten, Veteran (Iraq)

Mike Wooten

I’m from a small town in Minnesota called St. James. Growing up, I was a busy kid; in high school, I wrestled, played football, did track, played alto saxophone in the band, and sang in the choir. 

In track, I threw the shot and discus for a few years, and I loved football, but wrestling was what really got me going. St. James was (and still is) a big wrestling town. One time, my junior year, we had the best wrestling team in the country. Wrestling is mentally and physically tough, and especially so when you’re cutting weight.

I remember that my mom pretty much ran the household. She had to - my dad was an over-the-road trucker, so he’d be gone a lot. But if I ever did anything bad, it was always, You wait till your dad gets home. And then I’d be dreading the week or two it would take him to get home. So I guess my dad still had a say, just not as often as my mom. 

One day after school my Senior year, I came home and told my mom I’d joined the Army. I told her I was going into Basic after the summer. She looked at me and said something like, Okay, if you say so. The way she said it, I could tell she wasn’t thrilled about it, but she didn’t try to stop me. 

I might have enlisted for a couple of reasons. There was a family connection: My grandpa was a Korean War medic, and my dad did a few years in the National Guard. But I also saw my friends going straight to college and not doing anything with it. I wanted to do something more meaningful and career-oriented right away. 


I fished growing up, but the majority of it was ice fishing. I remember after wrestling practice, how we’d all go out to the ice house and fish and do the other stuff that comes along with that, being teenagers out at the ice house without supervision.

Everyone rode snowmobiles. The way we rode them, we’d just fly out to the lake and ride all over the place. I remember mine from high school: It was an old Polaris Cutlass 340. And even though it was old, it ran well enough; it got the job done. You really could fly across the ice on it.

It’s funny - later on, after I got out of the military, I ended up getting a couple more snowmobiles, and they were nothing like the ones I rode in high school. The new ones were so much more advanced, so much more powerful. 

I guess you could say that growing up, fishing was something I did, but I also did a lot of things. It wasn’t my primary focus back then. 


I went into the Army in 1999. That first year, my duty station was South Korea, on the DMZ.

My dream duty station was to end up in Fort Carson, Colorado. And that’s exactly where I went my second year. When I was stationed in Fort Carson, I was in the Armored Cav. We did all kinds of training exercises. One time, they flew us out to Egypt and we participated in war games with other countries. Great Britain was one one of the countries that was there with us. Another time, we went to the National Training Center in California to do desert training. Those were good times.

I got married in 2001 while I was on leave. It was right after the Trade Center came down.

At the beginning of 2003, the higher-ups told us to be ready. Then one day, we showed up in formation, and this is what they told us: Okay, we told you to be ready. You’ve got to show up back here at 6p.m. with all your gear. You’re going to Iraq.

We all knew what was happening. A lot of us were looking at each other and saying, Aww shit. A bunch of us had procrastinated and didn’t have everything ready. Most of us spent all day running around, tying up loose ends, trying to get things together. When we finally went back that night, we got locked in the building. We couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. 

Buses came. We got on and they took us to Peterson Air Force Base. Then we went to Iraq. I remember stopping in Germany for a layover and everyone enjoyed a beer or two with each other. For some of us, that was the last time we got to enjoy a beer with our brothers and sisters who never came home. 


I’m definitely a big Veteran’s advocate. When I started hearing that the number was up to 22 or 23 Veterans a day committing suicide, it really hurt me. Because a lot of times, they feel helpless and there’s nothing better to do, and all they’re doing is sitting around, drinking and doing drugs; they’re trying to forget something, or they’re trying to match the high that you feel when you’re in a war zone, doing the things you are trained to do. The adrenalin you get in combat can never be matched by any drug, and a lot of people chase that when they get back home.

I got out of the military completely in December of 2003. At that point, I’d been in almost five years. And coming back from Iraq, going from a war zone to civilian life, was a huge contrast. 

Everything was a challenge for me. 

I went from a foreign place where people were dying all around, where I was trained to kill and be unstoppable, to being back in Minnesota a few days later. There was no desensitization. There was no reintegration.

When I got back to Minnesota, I didn’t really know anybody anymore. What happened next was that I ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Some of them were people I’d known when I was younger, but they weren’t the same when I got back. It took me a while to see that. 

I ended up in some trouble. I had issues with the law. And at home, my family life wasn’t going very well. I had my wife and son at home, but it wasn’t more than a couple months after getting back that my wife looked at me and said, Something’s wrong with you. Get out.

I said, “Okay” and left. I knew something was wrong - I didn’t feel like I had before I’d left for the war.

That’s when I knew I needed to find something else. Something to fix myself. 


Fishing helped me.
Whenever I got the chance, I would fish. It kept me away from other things, bad things. It kept me away from the issues I was having with the law and gave me something peaceful I could focus on. The lake near where I lived in Minnesota was a good place for escaping. It was well stocked with northern pike, walleyes, and crappies. And come winter, I went ice fishing like I used to as a kid. 

Even now, I almost never specifically fish for one thing. I’m just out there. Even if I don’t catch anything, the peacefulness of not having anyone around – it kind of feels like you’re on an island. I like that. When I had my kids, I took them camping and fishing and they enjoyed it also.

For a long time, I didn’t do well with crowds. I couldn’t have people behind me, I couldn’t have people next to me, I couldn’t do any of that. I lived in seclusion for almost three years. During that time, I used my dogs for therapy (I started with three pit bulls and ended up having ten.) Whenever I had the time or got out of the house, I’d go fish, or sometimes just go around in the woods.

Fishing and hunting and the outdoors have always been a part of who I am. I’ve always been able to turn to them when I need peace and relaxation. And they could be a way for people with PTSD to reintegrate back into society.


The first four or five years back were the hardest.

I ended up on 100% total and permanent disability because I was basically unemployable. I couldn’t work a regular job, even though I tried; I worked at Anderson trucking company in St. Cloud, Minnesota for about six months after I came back. That didn’t work out very well - I was a great mechanic, it was just that having people around me wasn’t the best. 

In 2005, I met my girlfriend, Vicki. She helped me get through a lot. I’d even say she was one of my saviors. Four years later, in 2009, she passed away at our home in St. James, Minnesota. It’s the home I still live in now.

After she passed, I had a lot of pent-up aggression. I was still fishing and spending time outdoors, but I also took up cage fighting. I trained for it for two and a half years, but my body couldn’t hold up after a certain point due to injuries I'd sustained during my time in the military.

One thing I did when things were hard, something positive, was to complete a degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Management. I started to work on it when I was living in seclusion. It was one of those speedy, two year programs that took me five years to complete with my severe PTSD.

Get-R-Done Outdoors Group didn’t happen until about a year and a half ago, when I decided that a great way to relax would be to travel and fish throughout the country. I took a look at myself and my life and decided I wanted to get into the outdoors industry. I wanted something that felt more peaceful. Something I could relax with. Something that I could teach to and pass on to my boys. 


With Get-R-Done, we put on over 100,000 miles a year driving to fishing and outdoor shows and doing hands-on promotion of products that we believe can make your outdoor experience more easy and enjoyable. We have a van (that’s getting worked on right now) and a ‘96 one-ton dually crew-cab with a T. Allen Rods trailer. Anytime we go to a show, there are usually four of us, plus now a mascot, a German Shepherd named Kraut; I’m not sure how long he’ll be with us, but he does draw attention to our booth. 

We take an old-school sales approach, where if you don’t return our calls, we’ll just drive halfway (or more) across the country and show up at your office. 

We did that when we went to Pure Fishing, in South Carolina. We didn’t have an appointment, but one day we showed up there with our Rodmasters. The Rodmaster holds four rods and reels of different sizes and can be mounted upside down, in your garage, sideways on a boat, in a truck, or basically anywhere you can put your 2 mounting screws. We demonstrated the product to two women returning from lunch. And then, two hours later, we were upstairs in the Boardroom with a Product Manager and a Vice President doing the same demonstration.

If that sounds like an awful lot of work to be called relaxation, maybe I find it relaxing because I believe in what I’m doing. Because I believe in what Get-R-Done Outdoors Group is doing. I also find driving and seeing the scenery that our beautiful country has to offer is very relaxing and enjoyable to me. 

One more old-school sales story. 

We drove down to Bentonville, Arkansas to try and talk to Walmart. But when we got there, they’d had some kind of incident and were on lockdown. So we asked around and found out where the executives liked to hang out after work, and that’s where we went. We got there early.

When the executives starting rolling in, we were ready. Friendly conversation turned into live product demos, and by the time the night was through, we had a lot of executive interest in the Rodmaster from one of the biggest retailers in the country. 

It’s easy to sell when you believe in what you’re selling and you have good products. 
I don’t have as much time to fish now, but I always carry fishing poles and my bow on these trips. Whenever we get a chance, we throw the lines in the water and just relax and get away from the shows and the people and the cities and the lights. It’s peaceful out there. Fishing connects you to that.


I’ve had more friends die here after the war than actually in the war. 

Veterans need something to do, whether it’s fishing or hunting or camping. If you have a lot of stuff on your mind, you need to find something that’s not just sitting around and self-destructing. Go out and get the line wet; that’s still good even if you don’t catch a fish. 

Relax and enjoy what you’re doing. Feel that pole in your hand. Concentrate on where the fish might be. No matter how bad it is in the world, no matter how bad it is in your world, try to make better casts. Work some different techniques. Maybe try some different lures. Find out what works best for you.

When you’re a Vet, the Brotherhood is always there for you. Some of my best friends are Vets from past wars, like Vietnam and Korea. I’ve been in some of the darkest places, and when I’m with my Brothers, it helps. We don’t have to talk about what happened to support one another.

A lot of guys get back from a war and don’t want to take medication. If that’s where you find yourself, you need to find something else that can be your medication. Something constructive that can take your anxieties away. When you get back from a war zone, you’re loaded with anxiety: it’s a part of you. The smallest thing can trigger it, like someone brushing your back by mistake in passing. Other times, just being around people is unbearable.

Even if you know you’re broken, you can’t dwell on it. Take small steps forward. Go fishing, go camping, go on a hunting trip; you might come across other people in the outdoors who are doing the same thing as you. And when you meet them, maybe you share a look or a few words. That might seem insignificant to some people, but that’s how reintegration happens: little by little. That’s how you start to put yourself back together and get more comfortable in your own skin.

It took me ten years to be able to talk about what little I talk about. The daily struggles are very real, but I keep moving forward. I try not to get hung up and spin my wheels. I have to keep doing things, I have to keep fishing and bowhunting. The alternative is sitting and dwelling on the bad, and that's how guys end up pulling that trigger.

Getting out there and fishing, just being outside and engaging in good things, it’s a way to survive getting home. If my stories can get a few more Veterans doing something constructive instead of destructive, I'll talk about anything. I want to help Veterans be okay and find something to do that will really help them cope. 

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[Story as told to Jesse Bastide. Content edited, arranged, and condensed. Ed.]