Healing Waters: Fly Fishing Brings Peace to Wounded Veterans
Walking up the lawn to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. you might not be surprised to see a young soldier, bandaged and in a wheel chair after more than three years of surgeries. What you might surprise you, however, is to see this same man with a fly fishing rod in his hand, perfecting his casting arch there in the yard, a smile on his face.
This scene actually takes place at 207 locations in 50 states and Germany, thanks to the program, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. (PHWFF). Founded in 2005, PHWFF pairs local fly fishing clubs and their volunteers with wounded veterans, providing ongoing classes in fishing, rod building, and fly building, as well as organizing fishing excursions. All training, equipment, and trips are free of charge to the veterans, and for many, it has been a true lifeline.
Similar to equine therapy, fishing allows wounded veterans to escape the stress, noise, and anxiety of normal life and spend time in the peace and quiet of nature. Learning and new skill, and seeing their trainers on a regular basis, builds a sense of pride and camaraderie, and gives them something to look forward to. Every fish caught offers a small yet valuable taste of success, helping rebuild self confidence and potentially replace negative memories with new, happier ones.
A hobby like fly fishing also takes concentration in body and mind, allowing the obsessive thoughts and hyper-vigilance that so often accompanies Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to temporarily shut off. Some veterans suffering from physical wounds see an improvement in their other life skills that they have had to relearn after injury, thanks to the dexterity, focus, and concentration it takes to work with flies and rods.
Veterans of all ages and from all conflicts are benefitting from the release that fishing provides, a relief that many previously self-medicated or treated with prescription medication. Many feel that finding a natural way to cope with their injuries is a welcome alternative that has truly saved them from the very sad statistics of veteran suicide.
PHWFF was founded by 30-year Navy vet Ed Nicholson, who – during his own stay at Walter Reed for cancer treatment – got a close and personal look at the wounded veterans struggling to recover from their injuries. Nicholson had a gut feeling that getting out in nature and learning to fish could really help improve their quality of life. More than 10 years later, this highly successful program has proven that he was exactly right.
Today, PHWFF operates as 17 regions with unique programs operating within each. A regional coordinator helps connect the veterans with local fly fishing clubs that then provide ongoing training and volunteers, and also facilitates fishing trips and events. The organization depends on other veterans and civilians for donations (both monetary and fishing equipment), volunteer hours, and even the manpower to start new chapters. PHFF also teams with several vendors who donate portions of sales to the program, so other outdoorsman can help just by shopping.
Today, more and more veterans are finding peace on rivers, lakes, and waterways. In 2015 alone, PHWFF served 7,424 injured and disabled military service personnel and disabled veterans. The new friendships, skills, and goals achieved seem to be proving that fishing can be a powerful force for good for today’s veterans.