As Chad Brown says, “Your soul river is different than my soul river. Your soul river may be hiking or skateboarding, but its the idea of being able to connect on a personal level that you can use as a coping mechanism to help you go through your process.” It’s this belief that lead the Navy veteran to form Soul River Inc. in 2012, a Portland, OR based organization that’s equal parts for-profit retail establishment and non-profit advocacy organization that introduces at-risk youth and other vets to the idea of conservation. This is also where you’ll learn how the river saved Chad Brown’s life.

After a promising pursuit in an art and design career at the Art Institute of Design in Dallas, Brown found himself with dwindling finances so we decided to join the Navy. He would travel to 14 different countries as a member of a Joint Taskforce Expeditionary Unit, and served in Operation Desert Storm, at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, at a NASA research station in Antarctica and in Mogadishu, Somalia, during a period of extreme violence.

 

He came home in 1994 and moved to New York to pursue a masters in photography, communications and design at the prestigious Pratt Institute. Signs of mental health problems began to show, but wanting nothing more than to accomplish his goals, Brown shook it off and worked even harder. He graduated and found immediate success in the design world, working for heavy-hitters such as Richard Simmons and his fashion line Phat Farm.

Despite this, he still knew something was off, and in retrospect he realized that his method of coping was by stepping into a fast paced lifestyle to avoid the demons that haunted him. This all came to halt when Brown decided to move to Portland in 2007. The slower speed of the city gave him more time to think and serious depression set in. Within 6 months of arriving, Chad lost his job and began a period of on-again, off-again homelessness that would last for years.

He turned to Veteran Affairs who put him on heavy medications and therapy but Brown’s symptoms weren’t improving. “I was one of the many vets standing in line to give blood for $20 so I could keep gas in my tank,” he said. “I was in a place that I never in my life thought I would find myself.”

In 2009 it became too much to bear and he was found on a river about to take his on life. “I was angry, mad at the world, frustrated, strung out on so many different meds. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t smile. I felt like I was a walking zombie,” Brown said. He spent days in a psych ward and would continue to struggle for years until a friend introduced him to fly fishing. It was that same river that would become his savior.

Maybe it was the consistent sounds of the water or the repetitive action of casting a line, but whatever it was, fly fishing was the only thing that made Chad feel any better. He slowly began decreasing his medication and in 2012 got the idea for Soul River Inc. He knew the river had saved his life, but he wanted to help others find their “soul river”, that which could soothe the wounds left by trauma.

The next year the VA finally diagnosed him as 50% mental disabled, and with that came 6 years of back pay to start his life over again. He paid off debt and put the rest towards Soul River Inc.

He now organizes 7 expeditions a year, called “deployments” to places he calls “hot zones”, places in environmental peril. Some are as close to home as Eastern Oregon, others are as far as the Arctic Circle, but the mission is always the same: bringing together underserved youth with veterans from all branches of the military for an immersion experience in environmental stewardship, leadership, and advocacy. By connecting youth and veterans to public lands, wild rivers, and fresh waters, both are left with a greater sense of purpose and provided with a new context to understand themselves and their capabilities.

Learn more about Soul River’s next deployment here: http://www.soulriverinc.org