..."are you alive, or are you not?"
Sargent Wes Dyer, USMC
Founder AWOL Angler
describes "the Fray"
This story begins, as many stories do, with a dream and a plan. Two dreams and two plans actually, that create a circle of wholeness and completion, 13 years in the making. Two stories that will weave into one.
My son Noah had been guiding fall elk hunts for an outfitter for several years with the goal of owning his own outfitting business one day. Two summers ago, the land that the outfitter leased for many years changed hands, as countless properties did throughout the west during the pandemic. The new land owner was not going to renew the hunting lease to the outfitter. Faced with the idea of not guiding, this was Noah's chance to start his own outfitting service and fulfill his childhood dream. Plans were made, business licenses secured, leases signed and hunters were booked. Under the Sun Outfitters was a reality. One evening, Noah's dad suggested the idea of giving back. A collaboration between the newly created outfitting business and a veteran's organization, AWOL Angler. Founded by Wes Dyer, AWOL Angler focuses on helping combat veterans through difficult times utilizing the therapeutic benefits of fly fishing. Noah and I both know Wes well from guiding together and we had watched Wes pour himself into AWOL Angler over the past few years. It was a perfect match. We invited Wes to come to our house for dinner. Noah prepared elk steaks from a bull that he himself had recently shot with his bow. When the offer to donate 2 guided cow elk hunts to Wes and a fellow combat veteran was made for the fall of 2022 hunting season, Wes knew just who he wanted to bring.
August 14, 2009.
15 Marines were trapped in a hostile area taking relentless rocket fire and surrounded by buried explosive devices. USMC Sargent Wes Dyer's job as a Combat Engineer was to ensure that those 15 Marines were safely escorted out of danger. Clearing minefields during 25 hours of heavy Taliban fire, Wes triggered an IED hidden under the sand. For 11 minutes he lay unconscious, with a broken back and an unspeakably serious concussion. Wes found himself on "the fray;" a term Marines use when on the precipice of life.
When you ask yourself, "are you alive, or are you not?" He was flown to a medical outpost to recover in southern Afghanistan. 6 days later, on August 20 word had spread of Wes's heroism and injuries. Wes's former 1st Combat Engineer Battalion Training colleague, Earl, a salty old school Marine, arrived at the medical base to check on his friend. Earl and others broke Wes out of the hospital tent and the two sat together sharing cigarettes, talking about the firefight and dreaming about home. Looking out over the barren, sandy terrain of Afghanistan, Wes told Earl about his home state of New Mexico and the elk that roamed the mountains there. The two made plans as they sat smoking in the dry, Afghan heat to hunt elk together in northern New Mexico when they returned home to the US. Earl and Wes parted ways at the medical base and despite the doctor’s recommendations, Wes went back to war.
He would leave Afghanistan in late 2009.
After a few years of soul searching, traveling and lots of fly fishing, AWOL Angler was founded by Wes in 2018. AWOL Angler's mission is to address the alarmingly high suicide rate of combat veterans. It also seeks to foster coping skills in soldiers who found themselves lacking support after returning to the civilian world through the healing benefits of fly fishing and nature. The rocks that line the river have been tumbled and tossed on the banks like the veterans that now stand on them; finding their peace and belonging, together at the water's edge, fly rod in hand. AWOL Angler offers veterans the ability to restore one's sense of self, while quietly casting flies to trout hiding in tranquil cutback pools. Even beyond that, Wes has created a community of guys who are welcome to come as they are. You don't need to explain yourself, there is no timeline for healing. All of this happens stream side as a new, stronger community is formed among these veterans. Those tumbled rocks still holding the river in its banks through hell and high water.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
A year has passed since that dinner around the table, and the time of the AWOL hunt had finally arrived. A week that also included Election Day, the Marine Corps Birthday, and Veteran's Day. Although they hadn't seen each other since 2014, Wes and Earl reunited like no time had passed. The two retired Marines traveled to Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico for their elk hunt with Under the Sun Outfitters. What happened next far surpassed the expectations of the two Marines sharing a smoke in Afghanistan. To arrive at a place that heretofore had only existed in your imagination, now goes beyond the walls of your mind. The colors of the sky, the scent of ponderosa pine in the air, the sound of fresh snow under your boots; no longer just your mind's experience it becomes now the full body's. For some combat vets this may be too much, but for Wes and Earl it was the completion of a circle; the punctuation of a plan brought back from the Afghan desert, coming to life after 13 years. By admission, hiking side by side with another Marine carrying his rifle in the woods felt very impactful for Wes. Asking a veteran to kill after being in combat is, in his words, extremely situational.
"Go afield with a good attitude, with respect for the wildlife you hunt and for the forest and fields in which you walk. Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. It will cleanse your soul and make you a better person."
Noah was 2 years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks and a carefree 10 year old when Wes was injured clearing mines in Afghanistan. Noah spent most of his childhood roaming the mountains, finding the obsidian arrowheads of the hunters and warriors who walked the landscape before him. Time spent following the patterns of nature. He has no desire to live another lifestyle. Noah tells me that the only reason that he is able to be an outfitter and live in a place where he can chase his dreams every day is because of guys like Wes and Earl and the so many veterans before them. He just wants to give back; to share the gift that he has been given. Much the same way that Earl saw something special in Wes back in Combat Engineer training, Wes sees something special in Noah. He wishes that more of the younger generation were like Noah. He describes Noah as a “savage, backwoods, badass; made of sinew, muscle and bone.” He sees Noah living life all of the time. He worries that the younger generations have a willingness to accept a life spent indoors making wages instead of being in nature making memories, pushing themselves outside their comfort zone, and living the gift of life. He fears that there has been a desensitization to war and a loss of feeling of gratitude. A society creeping close to “the fray.”
Both Earl and Wes shot their cows on the second day of their hunt and processed the meat themselves. The time was taken to thoughtfully select each cut of meat. Nothing would be wasted from these animals, deepening the connection to both the animal and the process of the hunt. Wes feels that hunting does hold a place in alternative healing but in a different way than fishing has. It is more of an offering of gratitude and appreciation than the mind cleansing experiences that fly fishing offers. Healing nonetheless. Noah hopes to make the AWOL hunt an annual experience so that he can keep giving to those who have already given so much.
If you would like to support future hunting opportunities to combat veterans through Under the Sun Outfitters and AWOL Anglers, donations (to defer the cost of airfare, food, lodging and elk processing) can be accepted through awolangler.org .
Likewise, if you want to learn more about AWOL Anglers or to support all the work that AWOL does for veterans coordinating no-cost monthly fishing trips for veterans, you can do that at awolangler.org as well. AWOL Angler is a not-for-profit, veteran owned company.
If you are interested in a guided fair chase elk hunting trip for yourself in the mountains of New Mexico, you can find Noah at www.underthesunoutfitters.com or email us at
If you or someone you know is a veteran in need of support, contact Wes at email@example.com
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please dial 988 to reach the Suicide Prevention Hotline
I hope this gives you a broader perspective of the struggles of combat veterans and the tireless work that is being done to support these American Heroes. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. How has fly fishing or hunting impacted your life and do you share those healing experiences with others? If you like this blog and would like to share it with others or with a veteran who might benefit from the work that AWOL Angler does, please do. You may click on the logos below to find out more about either AWOL Angler or Under the Sun Outfitters.