As the group of anglers cast lines into the water, their focus wasn’t on the day’s catch. They were more concerned with developing friendships and bolstering their recovery.
There was a common refrain around the pond: “This program saved my life.”
“The VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] tells you to do group therapy. That’s a sterile environment,” said Jay Edwards, a former Marine and law enforcement officer. “We don’t want to be there; we’re forced to go. It’s not fun.”
Edwards found something that works better for him. He is a participant in Project Healing Waters, a VA-approved, therapeutic fly-fishing program that helps in the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active-duty military service members and veterans.
The program teaches participants the art of fly fishing.
Veterans come to the program to escape the pain—and often the adverse memories—associated with extended overseas deployments and, in many cases, the horrors of battle.
“This program has helped me as far as my anxiety,” said Edwards. “Nature is where I go to clear my head and get rid of stress.”
It’s a point of view that’s being recognized by VA officials.
“To be a participant, disabled veterans or active-duty personnel can be prescribed [Project Healing Waters] at a military medical facility,” said Joe Holmes, a retired Air Force veteran who leads the Fredericksburg area program.
He thinks a lot of veterans could benefit from it.
“A significant number of the VA hospitals have a Project Healing Waters group that meets on site,” said Holmes. “The VA provides transportation and a space to meet.”
Veterans who have a disability rating from the VA can also be granted immediate access to the program, which has been effective in helping veterans improve hand-eye coordination, dexterity and concentration issues.
Everything a would-be angler needs to participate in the sport is provided at no cost by the nonprofit group, which is completely funded by donations.
Headquartered in La Plata, Md., Project Healing Waters has been around for eight years. The organization has more than 200 chapters across the U.S. and abroad, which are managed by 4,000 volunteers who provide help to more than 8,000 disabled veterans.
There are 13 volunteers and 23 participants in the Fredericksburg program.
“Five of those volunteers actually started out as participants,” said Holmes.
The local program holds a monthly meeting at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3103 on Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg. Once a month, the group meets at the Fredericksburg–Rappahannock Izaak Walton League site off Herndon Road in Spotsylvania County. There, the league sponsors the group and makes its fully stocked trout pond available for their use.
The local program also takes area participants on several trips each year, including trout fishing outings to streams and fishing holes in southwestern Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even as far away as Montana. In the colder months, participants stay indoors and learn the intricate art of tying flies.
“Each time, I learn something different,” said Army veteran Levi Jones of Spotsylvania. “It’s very relaxing, very calming. It requires you to concentrate, so it takes my mind off of other things.”
Alex Colonna, assistant program lead of the Fredericksburg program, said participants come from all walks of life and from all branches of the armed forces.
“The majority, if not all, have some kind of disability,” said Colonna. “The program is the perfect tool to cause them to focus and challenge their injuries, or just have a great time and learn something new, like building a fly rod.”
Latoynia Ransom–Harvey of Stafford County was medically retired from the U.S. Army after 28 years of active-duty service. She has been a participant in the Healing Waters Project since March, and said she already feels better.
“It’s just fun and very relaxing, even though I’ve got a lot to learn,” she said. “It puts your mind somewhere else, where you don’t have to deal with other things that are not very pleasant.”
John Bauerlin of Fredericksburg has been a volunteer in the program for only a couple of months. But he has more than 65 years of fly-fishing experience and willingly shares what he knows about the sport with the veterans.
“They’re very enthusiastic, they stay focused, they’re patient,” said Bauerlin. “I think the attraction is, when I’m fishing, I’m totally focused on fishing. That’s what I think benefits most of these guys.”
Twenty-year Marine Corps veteran Pete Griffin of Fredericksburg suffered a brain injury while deployed to Iraq, and agrees with Bauerlin’s perception.
“This is the type of thing I need,” Griffin said. “It gives me the opportunity to be alone, to reflect, to exist for a while and not think about things that you don’t need to think about.”
James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438