Healing Waters

Dale Cherney settled into a meditative casting rhythm on a red rock stretch of Wyoming’s North Platte River and caught nine trout in a single late summer day. That’s spectacular fly fishing by any measure – and even more impressive considering Cherney lost part of his right leg, his eye and his spleen to a rocket attack in Iraq. For Cherney, however, catching trout is almost inconsequential. He appreciates the ways fly fishing restores his strength, his balance and coaxed him back to life.“The injuries have made me an introvert,” says Cherney, whose left leg, also injured in the October 2007 attack, is held together by pins and rods. “Fly fishing pushes me, it gets me out doing things with people. I feel privileged to be stealing breath every day.”Personal victories such as Cherney’s are replicated from Maine to Hawaii because of a growing effort to provide fly-fishing therapy to wounded warriors. Some fishing guides informally reach out to veterans living in their area. Programs such as Sun Valley Adaptive Sports in Idaho include fly fishing among several offerings for veterans. Project Healing Waters, which made Cherney’s trip to Wyoming possible, is the most far-reaching national effort focused solely on providing fly fishing for wounded warriors.The results speak for themselves: a wheelchair-using combat veteran now walks to fishing streams; a quadriplegic veteran learned to cast a fly rod with his right hand and manage the fishing line with his left hand despite a traumatic brain injury and a stroke; a Vietnam War veteran with severe agoraphobia and PTSD is able to leave his home and his family to fish with fellow veterans.“Fly fishing helps veterans discover physical abilities they didn’t know they have,” says Teri Olson, a recreational therapist with Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta, Maine. “Say you no longer have a hand and all of a sudden you learn to use your prosthesis to strip line. It’s no longer a weakness. Veterans who have lost a leg? They learn they really do dare to wade out into the water.”Such invigorating therapy goes well beyond the physical. It’s saved marriages, rebuilt shattered confidence, and helped veterans ease back into civilian life. “I have guys tell me, ‘This is a thousand times better for me than sitting in a group talking about how bad things are,’” Olson says.Great Lakes Beginning. Fly-fishing therapy has been around since at least World War II, when a masonry contractor from Chicago first taught fly tying to Marines and sailors recovering at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital. Bill Blades initially saw fly tying as a way to relieve the tedium of long hospital stays and help combat veterans with injured arms and hands regain their fine motor skills. Fly tying inevitably led to fly fishing. Blades passed his talents to contemporary therapy efforts during a chance encounter in the early 1950s. A self-taught fly fisherman named John W. Colburn was dispatched to Camp Haven, Wis., with his artillery battery to train National Guard and Army reservists. During that three-month stint, Colburn’s father-in-law – a sheet-metal contractor who knew Blades – insisted his son-in-law meet the fly-tying master.“He wasn’t the kind of guy who went around bragging about it,” Colburn says of Blades’ work with World War II wounded. “He mentioned it to me because I was in the Army at the time.”Blades gave Colburn a couple of fly-tying lessons and presented him with a red rooster neck – prized fly-tying material. And Colburn carried his fly-tying gear everywhere he could throughout his 20-year Army career. “It kept me from doing other things that weren’t good for me,” he says. “I could do that in a tent out on a gun position rather than sit and play poker.”After retiring from the Army in 1968, Colburn worked in fly shops and taught fly-tying classes. Five years ago, he heard a retired Navy captain named Ed Nicholson was starting a fly-fishing therapy program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.“When Project Healing Waters started, it reminded me of Bill Blades, and I mentioned to Ed that I did teach fly-tying classes,” Colburn says. Soon he was teaching some of Blades’ techniques to his first class of combat veterans: four soldiers who had lost their left arms and a soldier who had lost most of the use of his right hand. “My motto during that first class became, ‘It isn’t that you can’t do it, it’s that we haven’t figured out a way that you can do it,’” Colburn says. In fact, Colburn taught himself to tie flies with either hand so he could teach soldiers who only have the use of one hand. And he learned not to take no for an answer.“A guy will say to me, ‘No way I can do that,’” Colburn says. “I say, ‘Hell, give it a shot.’ Pretty soon, he will figure out he can do it and there’s no stopping him.” Healing Waters. Nicholson was inspired to launch Project Healing Waters while recovering from surgery at Walter Reed. “I love to fly fish myself,” Nicholson says. “I thought it would be helpful to get soldiers out of the hospital and reconnected with the outdoors. It wasn’t hard to convince them to give it a try.”Project Healing Waters started with fly-tying classes at Walter Reed led by Colburn. When spring broke, Nicholson and other volunteers launched the first fishing outing near Hagerstown, Md., with three wounded soldiers. The fishing stories got around. Demand was overwhelming. Nicholson asked fly-fishing groups around the country to help veterans in their areas. “We want to work within a club structure,” Nicholson says. “This is more than an individual can do.” Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers stepped forward. A dozen other independent clubs, including a chapter of American Fly Casters, have joined the effort in individual communities. Today, with just two paid staff and the generosity of the fly-fishing community, there are Project Healing Waters programs at more than 60 VA medical centers and about a dozen Army medical centers and Warrior Transition Units. A program soon will launch in Canada.“The support we receive locally from many service organizations, including The American Legion, is making sure disabled veterans who would benefit from our program have access,” says Jerry Lorang, who coordinates Project Healing Waters programs in Oregon.Fly fishing offers wounded warriors therapy away from the barbells and boredom of a hospital setting. Wounded warriors get one-on-one attention from volunteer instructors. They start with fly tying, progress to rod building and, in some locations, drift boat building. Fly-casting practice also starts indoors during the foul months of winter and moves outside as the weather improves. “We try to stay in front of it and keep soldiers engaged,” Nichols explains.The men and women who participate talk about the camaraderie, about being inspired by watching what others are able to accomplish, about the chance to forget what most troubles them.“It releases your mind from what happened back there,” says Jesse Garza of Fullerton, Calif., who was wounded in Vietnam and still battles PTSD. “It gives you that moment, that hour, that week away from the pain. It’s a mental-physical type of therapy where you use your hands and you use your mind.” And it has given him and his wife an outdoor sport they can pursue together.There’s also the pride of learning to master something as mysterious and challenging as fly fishing despite dramatic physical and emotional challenges inflicted by combat.“Soldiers wake up one day missing an arm or a leg and ask themselves if they will ever be able to do the things they liked to do,” Nicholson says. “We help them regain their confidence through teaching them the art and craft and sport of fly fishing. Time and again, a soldier who didn’t want to do anything is out there casting with one arm, stripping line with his teeth.”However, Project Healing Waters emphasizes it’s not a “take-a-soldier-fishing-for-a-day program.” It establishes long-term relationships with wounded warriors. It works with the physical, occupational and recreational therapists at VA and military medical centers who are in charge of the formal treatment.“Therapists see the benefits of repeated contact over time,” Nicholson says. “They love the fact that we are committed.”“There are hundreds of organizations that want to help veterans,” adds Carole Katz of Long Beach, Calif., Casting Club. “What’s unique about Project Healing Waters is we’re there on a regular basis where other groups might come for the Fourth of July or a one-time benefit event.”The therapy is all about the fishing – and not about fishing at all.“Put yourself in the framework of a person who is missing an arm or lost the ability to use an arm,” Nicholson says. “They have got to find ways in everyday living to get along. How do they button their buttons? Tie their shoes? If you get them down on a fly-tying bench and show them how, with one arm, they can tie a wooly bugger, they can do other things.”Terry Perry, who developed a desire to fly fish while she was stationed in Alaska with the Air Force, says there’s another consideration. “When I’m in a drift boat catching fish, nobody can tell I have a handicap,” says Perry, who returned home to Maine after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “Out there, you can relax, you can be yourself. When you go in public with a wheelchair, you don’t always get that.” The classroom sessions, offered as often as weekly in some locations, are as important as the fishing trips. “I have vets who just take the rod-building classes, fly-tying lessons, and casting lessons,” says Carole Katz, the retired nurse anesthetist who runs a Project Healing Waters program for veterans at the Long Beach VA Medical Center. “For many of them, these ongoing classes are just as therapeutic as the fishing outings.”     One participant, whose life revolved around sitting in bed, watching TV and popping pills for his relentless pain, told her the classes “get the week off to a positive start” and give him “a reason to get out of bed and out of the house.” Families are equally grateful for fishing therapy. “I’ve had spouses call me or pull me aside and say, ‘Thank you for saving our marriage,’” Olson says. Fly tying, rod building and fishing also are more meaningful than some of the textbook physical and occupational therapy. “One of the exercises they have to do in physical therapy is pick up a marble and put it in a bowl over and over again,” Katz says. “That’s mind-numbingly boring to a 21-year-old stud who is coming back from the Middle East.”Other soldiers find fly tying so enjoyable that they declare, with relief, that they have made their last leather wallet – standard fare on the rehabilitation menu.Participants from the Long Beach VA Medical Center have achieved other milestones, graduating from psychiatric treatment because the fly fishing program inspired them to buy a fly rod or go on fishing trips – all steps toward independent living.Fly Fishers Anonymous. Tim Reed wishes fly-fishing therapy had been offered when he came home from Vietnam with a bullet-shattered leg.“I was in traction for four and a half months,” Reed says. “It was brutal for the boredom. I could have tied flies when I was in bed.” Reed found his way to fly-fishing therapy on his own 15 years ago, after alcohol and drugs cost him his business, his house and most of his friends. While he was in recovery, “they said, ‘You cocaine addicts better find something real quick,’” Reed says. “Fly fishing turned my obsessive qualities a better direction. (Now) I just torture the fish instead of myself and my family.”Why does fly fishing work? “It’s hard to find a hobby you can participate in for the rest of your life,” Reed says. “It’s something anybody can do. You don’t have to be an athlete. You can do it on your own or with other people. And trout hang out in pretty places.”Reed started a program through the Spokane Fly Fishers because he wanted veterans to have the opportunity to find some of what fly fishing has given him. “I would not have gotten the VA hospital here to respond without the help of Project Healing Waters founder Ed Nicholson and regional director Chuck Tye,” Reed says.Last summer, Spokane Fly Fishers took an 88-year-old combat veteran fishing after being contacted by his wife. It’s the first time Mershan Shaddy fished since he was a kid. Now Reed’s group is planning fly-fishing therapy for veterans with traumatic brain injury who live in a halfway house.Dale Cherney wishes more veterans would take advantage of the program. For him, fly-fishing therapy means a future. He pushes his workouts at Walter Reed so he has the strength to deal with steep stream banks. “I’ll never be 100 percent,” Cherney says. “But I’m getting close. When (rehab) is done, I want to help Project Healing Waters out – maybe volunteer to organize an event. And I’m thinking about building bamboo rods for a living.” Meanwhile, one group is formally testing veterans before and after they participate in fishing therapy with the aim of establishing scientific evidence of the benefits of wielding a fly rod. Recreational therapists like Teri Olson don’t need the formal affirmation.“I’ve watched it work for 30 years,” Olson says. “The veterans come away with lifelong changes. They come back week after week, month after month, as effusive as they were during that week of fishing. They see a strength they never knew they had before.” She pauses and laughs. “It’s amazing what a fish can do.”  Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.