Hans van Klinken is a notable Dutch fly fisher, fly tyer, author, photographer and outdoor travel journalist. Gervais Jeffrey, Lead PHWFFC Coordinator, recently had a chance to interview Hans.
Q: Hans van Klinken, you served in the Royal Dutch Army as an officer for how many years?
A: I wasn’t an officer; a lot of people think I was because I had a few officer obs, especially at the end of my career. I actually was a Warrant Officer which is the highest rank under officer in the Dutch Army.
My specialties were heavy weapon systems and ABC warfare. I had several jobs within the army. I finished my military career after 36 years as the Commander of Royal Dutch Army Gunner School. That got changed into the special instruction group for heavy weapons after our armed vehicle with 25mm had reached the end of its days. Both officially were officer jobs.
Q: During your service, you did some international deployments. During those deployments, what did you do for relaxation and to de-stress yourself and friends?
A: Oh yes! I had several duties in Germany where I stayed from 1976-1979. I returned again after my professional education in 1981 for another 5-6 years. For me it was my busiest but best time in the Dutch Army. For my wife it wasn’t.
his start with fly tying
Please note that the Cold War was still on in those days. During big exercises and long periods away from home duties, I always had my fly tying and fly-fishing stuff with me. When most soldiers enjoyed a beer in the bar in the evening, I tied my flies in my tent, or in my rooms.
In the 1990s, I was abroad often. Sometimes so much that my fly tying became extremely important during my time away from home. Later, when the UN and VN missions started, my fly tying was essential for me. It helped me handle and deal with all the terrible things that I saw, heard and read about Bosnia, and the cruelties done there.
I am not sure how I would have kept my head clear without my fly tying, threads and feathers. In the prime of my fly tying, I taught several colleagues privately, during missions, and long exercises.
While on duty in Germany, we worked 3 weeks in a row and got 4 days off, than worked another 3 weeks and got 10-12 days off. In those breaks I went to Scandinavia to build up fly fishing skills. Sometimes I went 10-12 times in a fishing season. I used the long winters and breaks during my exercises to perfect and design my fishing flies.
Q: When did you decide to take fly tying as a hobby?
A: I started fly fishing in 1971, fly tying in 1974, but failed totally due to lack of information, books, good material and tools. Finally in 1976, on my third attempt, I saw the light and found the tricks.
By taking flies apart with razor blades I saw how fly tying was actually done. The reason I kept trying it myself was because in the late 1970s and early ’80s, most flies you bought were very bad and they fell apart easily. They also were not exactly the patterns that you wished to fish with. In my upcoming book there will be a good explanation about how I got into all of it.
healing through fly tying
Q: Why do you think that fly tying helped you to eliminate the stress?
A: I actually tied a lot during the big and long exercises in the 1980s and early ’90s. Those were the real big training exercises, with between 400,000 and 800,000 soldiers from many different countries.
Sadly, in most of those big exercises, 80% of the time was waiting time, and when nothing happened, it was extremely boring. A lot of officers and colleagues were often extremely stressed, but I was always quite relaxed.
Some of these big exercises took between 6-10 weeks, including all the preparations. Besides that, I was placed with my platoon under command of a German tank unit. It was my official job in case a war might start again, and we trained a lot for it.
I was in one of the few platoons that worked mostly quite alone under German command. My German language was perfect and English quite good so I helped them a lot with communication problems. Our radios had far greater and better distance cover.
coping with large missions
I also have a natural skill for extremely good and accurate orientation (no GPS at that time), and was able to help a lot of people save their asses when they got lost! The Germans and Dutch both had a large conscript army in those days. It was one of my main duties to train young officers, under officers and soldiers in the best and most effective ways.
The Germans really loved me, perhaps because I always was so relaxed. I also never got any crap jobs from them. I had maybe 12-13 big missions with them and they were some of the best exercises during my time in Germany. The tank unit only needed me when I had to clean up villages, or for doing any other tactically armed infantry activity to protect tanks in towns and crowded areas.
For many colleagues there was an enormous stress during all those big exercises. I actually was always quite relaxed and I blame it on my fly tying in between when there was nothing to do or when we were off duty.
teaching fellow soldiers
I remember very well that I even tied flies while waiting for dozens of hours popping out the commander’s place in my vehicle when nothing simply was going on for us. Those are extremely boring moments in which most took a nap, cleaned their weapons and even took a bath when there was water very near. I continued my fly tying later in war zones like Bosnia, but then I did it in the hotels mainly in the evenings and weekends or times when off duty.
Q: Did you teach fly tying to other officers and friends of your unit during those deployments?
A: Oh yes, I did. I have probably taught between 25-30 soldiers how to tie flies. I know a few of them became real fanatic fly fishers, but we lost touch over time and as we grew older.
POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER
Q: Do you believe it helps them to avoid PTSD?
A: I have never studied this or have any proof of it, but when it comes to believing in it, I honestly must say “yes I do”. Not for all of them, but I am sure it helped a few of them, especially those who asked me to send them fly tying stuff and hooks when they were on missions.
Q: If you don’t mind, I want to talk about one of your worst deployments. “Bosnia was a hard one for many soldiers, like you’re saying, for its cruelty and the ethnic cleansing.” What helped you and others to get through it without the effects of PTSD?
A: This is an extremely good question and I only can answer it emotionally. I don’t want to get into the details as I have faced quite a few inhuman cruelties myself.
For me, the Bosnian war was one of the worst things I have ever experienced in my life. All I can say is that what I faced in Bosnia wasn’t even the Srebrenica massacre. This is where mainly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed under Dutch UN protection. Many people I know got serious PTSD problems because of it, and it was the worst event the Dutch army even went through.
I had other things to face that were done by the Serbs. What they did was so cruel and inhuman that I was in shock and speechless for 2 weeks. I hardly said anything to anybody, but slowly worked my way through it while tying many, many flies in my hotel room. I still believe today that those fly tying moments prevented me from getting PTSD.
iraq and afghanistan
Q: Did you do participate in other stressful deployments after that one? If you did, did you use the same approach for stress relief?
A: No. After Bosnia I didn’t volunteer for special missions to war zones and only would have accepted when the army sent me. I got a lot older too and finally had reached an age I didn’t have to go on missions anymore.
Instead I educated all our gunners for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a job I took extremely seriously. Regarding fly tying, I still taught a few guys fly tying and told them to tie flies when they feel bad. Some did and told me it helped. Since my retirement, I haven’t heard from them anymore. I don’t know if tying flies helped them as well as it helped me.
WRITING AND OTHER WORK
Q: Now that you are retired from the Army, what is your main focus?
A: I write a lot and do it very well, even winning a Lifetime Achievement Award in the US for my stories in American Fly Tyer Magazine. Many books contain my contributions and, since 1986, publications of mine have appeared in more than 60 magazines worldwide.
I also give lots of lectures, doing workshops, classes and fly tying demonstrations all over the globe. I have at least a dozen hobbies all related to fly-fishing, fly tying, photography and writing.
workshops, classes and other workshops
At the moment I am working on my own book, and am involved with many different projects. Several are conservation projects. Since retirement I have given more than 100 children’s classes and workshops on fly tying for kids. I am actually even busier than I ever was in the Army.
The big difference for Hans van Klinken right now is that he is enormously busy only with things that he likes and loves to do. He travels a lot, at least 10-15 trips a year.
Q: Are you involved in teaching fly tying to soldiers who are suffering from PTSD or teaching children for instance?
A: Not officially. However in the last 10 years I have sent quite a bit of surplus fly tying materials to soldiers. They request materials in forums or on Facebook.
project healing waters
Q: Have you heard about Project Healing Waters? This is a program that is very popular in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.
A: Yes, I have heard and read about it. I’ve spoken with people about it in the USA as well. I even offered some help for Healing Waters in the US, but nobody ever got back to me. I offered free workshops and classes when somebody could accommodate me. However there was no interest so I just keep busy with my work and life. I’ve had a lot of association work the last 20 years and started to reduce it quite a bit over the last 5 years. I have never spoken with people from Healing Waters from other countries than the US. You are the first.
Q: Do you know if the Netherlands has something similar for those who served and who suffer from PTSD?
A: I think over last few years they are doing pretty well treating PTSD in Holland. There has been a lot attention about it on TV. This is because of people suffering from PTSD who are from Lebanon and Bosnia. I don’t know about any similar projects like Healing Waters. I think there aren’t so many PTSD cases from Afghanistan as from Bosnia. Things are changing a lot I guess.