I personally see the challenges they face. I started Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005 as I saw our young, injured troops working to regain their mobility and functioning. More than just a “take a guy fishing” program, PHWFF works with the physical and occupational therapists at Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs medical facilities to provide regular classes in fly tying, fly casting and rod building. Each of those activities provides the opportunity to improve fine motor skills and adapt to physical limitations.
As the wars progressed, we began seeing still other, “invisible,” injuries: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. These can complicate a veteran’s recovery due to their impact on concentration, mental recall, and compounding frustration.
The fly tying classes worked there too, as the intricate steps of wrapping and gluing bits of feather, fur and yarn to a hook pulled veterans mentally into a new, adventurous and non-clinical world. That new world became a reality for them because, of course, we also took them fishing. The rhythmic activity of casting a fly line, the peaceful surroundings, and the camaraderie with other veterans works wonders in healing restless, hurting souls as well as bodies.
Even off the battlefield, these young veterans continue to adapt, improvise and overcome, defeating debilitating injuries and recovering the skills needed to function in the years ahead. Yet, as their eventual military discharges drew closer, we saw a new anxiety surface as they realized that, while they had gained so much from our program, fly-fishing wasn’t going to pay the rent.