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Veterans learn to fish, relax through Project Healing Waters

Dave Chanatry
New York Reporting Project at Utica College
Veterans go fly fishing as part of Operation Healing Waters.

On this Veterans’ Day, a reminder that recovery from war is often a long and difficult process. Some veterans have found help in the simple acts of tying a fly and dropping a hook.

This is a story that starts a long way from home.

"Stationed out in the central highlands, this is Vietnam, LZ center..."

"I was on a Medevac helicopter; I was a door gunner..."

"10th Mountain, 187th Infantry, at the beginning of the Afghan war."

Those are the stories of Charlie Chapman, Mike Martin and Dan Young.

They were among the 19 veterans who spent a recent weekend on New York’s Salmon River, chasing something elusive.

"Reel reel reel reel, keep it going, keep it going," one man yelled. "Wow, that’s a big fish!

They’re in a program run by Project Healing Waters. The volunteer group uses the techniques of fly-fishing to help rehabilitate veterans and active duty personnel with physical or emotional disabilities.

"I have an Army commendation. V for valor," said Charlie Chapman, who is casting from a 16-foot aluminum skiff under the watchful eye of a guide.

More than 40 years after serving in Vietnam, Chapman still vividly remembers the night he earned his Purple Heart.  

"We were in a situation where we got overran," he said. "We lost 11 guys that night and about eight guys got wounded. So it was a very bad night for us. I can’t hear a helicopter go overhead without thinking of ‘Nam, I can’t smell diesel without thinking of ‘Nam."

But Chapman says when he’s out here there are no triggers to remind him of the past. He’s able to relax, he says, just by being with other disabled vets.  

"The main thing is you’re out with people that know what you went through," Chapman said. "You can talk if you want to, you can joke, or just talk about the experience of fishing for the day. It’s just a common bond."

On the water, there’s no room for distraction, says Dan Young. He’s a veteran of Somalia and Afghanistan. He caught a steelhead, then sat on a rock to enjoy the scene.

"I have really bad anxiety issues, really bad anxiety issues, and when I’m out here I don’t have them," Young explained. "I’m not worrying about anything else, I’m focused on the task I’m doing and it gives me some relief."

As fun as it is to fish, much of the therapy done by Project Healing Waters comes in weekly fly-tying sessions.

"Bring your arm up, come through, back, and keep holding it," recreational therapist Becky Ross says to a group of veterans during a therapy session.

One group meets Fridays at the Syracuse VA, where Ross says the vets are working on fine motor skills and dexterity.

"They’re not thinking about the movement, they’re doing the movement," Ross says. "Also, they’re practicing casting in our auditorium, so they’re doing that range of motion, that full arm swing."

The group was started at Walter Reed Army Medical Center almost a decade ago, to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now there are 177 programs in 50 states, all run by volunteers. Project Healing Waters’ Dan Morgan says many of the volunteers used to be in the program themselves.

"So when we see that transition from participant to volunteer, that’s a really powerful thing, really paying it forward and sharing something that was helpful for them with others who have served," Morgan said.

Mike Martin, the medivac door gunner, did his fishing standing knee-deep in the cold, rushing water, his volunteer guide close by his side.  He says the young nurses at the VA can’t help his PTSD, but this does.

"This is what I want to do in life, not re-live things that happened 40 years ago," Martin said. "This where I belong. I feel in my pack."

Volunteers helping veterans learn to catch fish, and to move on.

"Yeah, yeah! Charlie, Charlie, look at that monster! All right Charlie, quick, take a picture with it."

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.