Chadron State College student and military veteran JR Shaffner knew he had to do something when he lost six friends and fellow veterans to suicide. Shaffner is the Assistant Director of Casting Vets, a non-profit agency, in Hot Springs, South Dakota, that helps military veterans recover from the aftermath of combat. Shaffner, a Psychology major, has earned 10 internship credit hours with Casting Vets. After graduating from CSC in 2022, he plans to earn his master’s degree and doctorate to continue to help with the issue of veteran suicide.
Casting Vets was founded by Julius Johnson in 2018, a year after he was a patient at the Black Hills Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital. The goal of Casting Vets is to assist veterans recovering from PTSD, drug addiction, and homelessness. This includes veterans in the Transition House, a 90-day program where they work and check in regularly with the VA after they are released from the domiciliary.
“I found fishing to be a release and helpful to my recovery,” Johnson said.
Shaffner joined Casting Vets in 2019.
“When I met JJ and he saw my passion for fishing and helping fellow veterans, he asked me to come on board with Casting Vets,” Shaffner said. “When fishing worked for me and helped my PTSD, I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t this work for other vets? Let’s get them out in the fresh air away from dark thoughts.’ A lot of them have never fished before, so sometimes it’s like watching a little kid catch their first fish. Taking veterans out to fish is my own therapy. I know for however long they are with me they are OK and won’t be part of the 22.”
National statistics indicate that an average of 22 veterans complete suicide every 24 hours, according to Shaffner. Casting Vets is part of a South Dakota suicide prevention coalition established by the VA.
“I wanted to get involved in a solution,” he said. “Based on our research, about 1,200 veterans live in the Black Hills. We want to reach out to them so they know about Casting Vets.”
Shaffner and Johnson rely on an all-volunteer staff and advisory board to publicize and provide their services.
Starting May 13, veterans were able to fish at Angostura State Park from a donated boat. Shaffner also teaches vets how to fish from banks of local streams. In 2020, Casting Vets began to include ice fishing and were featured on a Joey Cruise YouTube video.
Some records are being set by the group. Shaffner’s wife, Julie, who is also a veteran, caught a 39-inch, 21-pound northern pike, and a guest of the group caught a 39-inch, 18-pound northern pike. Entire families are welcome to Hook ‘Em and Cook ‘Em events at Angostura and Custer State Park in the summers.
In addition to helping vets, Shaffner also has a keen interest in fitness. He is pursuing a minor in exercise science and training for the Trans South Dakota race that starts July 17 in Beulah, Wyoming. He wants to qualify in the Elite category by finishing the 714-mile race in four days. He will complete 709 miles with a bike and paddle down the Missouri River at Pierre, South Dakota, for five miles. The race ends at Sioux City, South Dakota.
His other biking efforts include Team Shake and Bake 2.0 which was organized to help a veteran with medical expenses. Shaffner is also training to compete in Amazon’s Eco-Challenge Patagonia.
“I love the butterflies I get when I’m in endurance races. If something goes wrong, I have to get out of it myself,” he said.