Chuck Geertz will never forget the weekday afternoon he pulled up to his hunting cabin and saw a friend’s truck parked on the gravel drive. This friend—we’ll call him Kenny to protect his privacy—frequently hunted on Geertz’s property but always called first. Geertz knew something was wrong.
He found Kenny sitting by a creek. He told Geertz he’d sat for hours listening to the water and watching animals play. Then he shared a secret.
“He told me that his intention that day was to go out into the woods and commit suicide but that once he was out there so close to nature, he couldn’t do it,” Geertz said.
Kenny is an Army Veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans make up 20 percent of suicides in the United States with ex-soldiers 24 and under taking their own lives at four times the rate of other veterans. Few people understand this as well as Geertz, a retired United States Marine Corps Infantryman and a retired Iowa Army National Guard combat engineer who admits to experiencing his share of psychological issues when he returned to civilian life.
“When you’re in [the service] there is a lot of anxiety, you don’t get much sleep and you’re always running on adrenaline,” Geertz said. “Then you come home and all of that is gone. You go from moving at 110 miles per hour to five miles per hour.”
A lifelong hunter and fisherman, Geertz returned to these activities as a way to connect with life again. If it worked for him, he thought, it could work for others, so in 2006 Geertz began developing a plan for an organization to help veterans reenter civilian life through hunting and fishing trips. In 2008, English River Outfitters (ERO) was officially launched as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The organization was named after the river that snakes its way through Washington County, where Geertz’s hunting lodge is located.
The quiet, wooded calm of Geertz’s Washington hunting grounds is a far cry from the metallic rattling of a Humvee’s engine or the blast of machine gun fire across an early morning sky. That’s precisely why veterans like Kenny go there.
“If you ever go out into the world really early in the morning, before even the birds wake up, and you watch the squirrels running around playing tag, and you wait for the sun to come up, you forget about everything else,” Geertz said.
Most, if not all, of the veterans Geertz takes on his hunting and fishing expeditions have PTSD. Until recently, Aaron Olson, a 37-year-old resident of Keota, was so depressed and anxious that he could not work. Sometimes he couldn’t even leave the house. Three years ago, a friend introduced him to Geertz and Olson attended a goose hunt. Now he helps Geertz lead trips for other veterans.
Kent Savage, 41, of Washington, Iowa is also a member of ERO. Savage is a retired combat engineer who served in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom until he suffered a brain injury and was medically discharged. Returning to civilian life was challenging.
“All I ever wanted to be was a soldier and then I had to figure out what to do with my life if I couldn’t do that,” Savage said. “I was really depressed. I didn’t know what to do,”
Like Olson, Savage has found friendship with Geertz and the other veterans.
“It’s been really good for me and for the other guys too,” Savage said. “We can just sit around a campfire and talk to one another without feeling like we’re under a microscope. We aren’t being judged. These are just our peers.”
Geertz currently offers approximately three hunting trips per season. He hopes to expand, but before he can do that he needs more donors, businesses and individuals. ERO’s trips are free to veterans. It costs $500 to take one veteran away for the weekend.
Enter Nathan Timmel. At first glance, Timmel and Geertz couldn’t be more different. Geertz is a seasoned military man with a longish (albeit well-groomed) goatee who is most comfortable in jeans and camo. Timmel is a young comedian with a two-month-old daughter who spends his afternoons in the corner booth at Panera Bread writing.
But Timmel once donned fatigues as a member of a consortium of talent from the U.S.—singers, comedians, musicians, etc.—who performed for the troops overseas. He has been doing comedy for 14 years but few performances have been as memorable as the ones he did for military audiences.
In 2004, he traveled to Camp Anaconda, the revamped site of an old Saddam Hussein air force base, to do stand-up. After the show one of the audience members came up to him and shook his hand to thank him.
“She told me that she laughed so hard she almost forgot where she was,” Timmel said.
He also performed for soldiers at a base that had just suffered the loss of many of their own. Timmel wasn’t sure how they’d react to attending his show at 10 a.m. the morning after, but the commanding officer of the base made attendance mandatory.
“He told me that he wanted them to remember that it’s okay to laugh,” Timmel said.
Timmel is hosting his fourth Comedy for Charity event, this one to raise funds for ERO. He and approximately a dozen comedians will perform at The Mill on Veteran’s Day, Sunday, Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.
One of the performing comedians will be Bobby Rae Bunch, a former member of the United States Air Force and an Iowa City resident. Bunch was stationed at Andrews’ Air Force Base, at an Iraqi prison and in Qatar, where he worked security for the USO Tour. That was the first time two of his passions—the military and comedy—intersected.
“I made Drew Carey laugh,” he said. “That made me feel pretty good.”
For Bunch, comedy has eased the transition from military to civilian life, whereas others like Olson, Savage and Geertz are still trying to straddle that line. War and comedy may seem an unlikely pairing, but comedy provides a rare common ground for civilians and veterans, when common ground can seem hard to come by.
“We’ve seen the breakdown of society and how horrible it can be,” Olson said. “When we come home, we see life as very fragile and we see people without a passion for their freedoms. We don’t expect them to understand the terror of combat, but we do want to see everyone reach out a hand to help their neighbor instead of just protecting themselves.”
Comedy for Charity seeks to begin that understanding with a little bit of laughter.
Jill Bodach is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an adjunct professor of English at Kirkwood Community College.