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For this Vietnam vet and others with PTSD, it's not actually the fish they're after

John Harrell.jpg
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
John Harrell says he wants to help military veterans who've seen and been through terrible things. One vet was so helped by a single day of fishing that he offered to do some yard work at Harrell's home off Lake Blalock in Chesnee. Harrell, for the record, is fine with that.

In a not-insignificant way, fishing is a lot like boxing and baseball. It tends to bring out the philosopher-poet in people.

It’s not hard to understand why. When Henry David Thoreau told us that it’s not really the fish most fishers are after, he was on to something.

John Harrell doesn’t really know what to call it – the “it” being the indefinable magic that sitting in a boat on a calm, glassy lake conjures – he just knows it helps.

“It relaxes me,” Harrell says. “If I’m tense I get out of it. I do have PTSD and it helps with that.”

Half a century ago, Harrell was a gunner on a small wooden boat (“It wasn’t a ship”) cruising the waters of the Vietnam War. He spent 11 years in the U.S. Navy, and left with, among other things, a few memories he’d rather not have.

Now about to be 80 (his birthday is in September), Harrell has opened his 400-feet-worth of lakefront coastline to other military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. His brand-new nonprofit, Fishing Vets of SC, is the culmination of two-and-a-half years of trying to put the organization together as a way for vets to get out of their heads, even if for just a little while.

Although we never got around to fishing, I sat with Harrell for a lazy, undirected couple of hours recently, talking about who-knows-what on his back deck, overlooking Lake Blalock, where Cherokee and Spartanburg counties meet in Chesnee. We talked about eagles and palm trees, flipped through pictures on his phone, and watched the dark mirror of the lake reflect the geese flying close to the surface.

All of it mattered precisely because none of it mattered. The same way he say’s it’s mattered for a couple guys he’s taken out on his boat.

John Harrell welcomes veterans to join him. If you’re interested, email him at FishingVetsofSC@gmail.com.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.