Healing Wounds and Lifting Spirits

Healing Wounds and Lifting Spirits

Project Healing Waters helps veterans recover through fly-fishing.

  • By: Deborah Weisberg

DAVID FOLKERTS RETURNED FROM Iraq in 2005, his right arm and spirit shattered from an encounter with an improvised explosive device. “I was hard-charging and wanted to serve my country and help the troops, and the opportunity had been taken away from me,” said Folkerts, now 28 and living in Falls Church, Virginia. “I was angry and depressed.” While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Folkerts, an Army engineer officer, saw how a new program organized and sponsored by Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing was helping other veterans cope with their injuries. He signed up for casting lessons, was given an automatic reel and eventually went on a trip to the Connetquot River in New York that filled him with newfound enthusiasm.

“I caught my first fish ever on a Woolly Bugger and absolutely loved it,” Folkerts said. “Once I pulled that trout in and looked down and saw how beautiful it was, I knew I wanted to keep doing it.” Folkerts now serves as program manager for Project Healing Waters and is helping to bring fly-fishing, fly-tying and rod-building to wounded and disabled veterans and active-duty military personnel across the U.S. In just four years, 50 Project Healing Waters programs have been established in more than two-dozen states, in conjunction with angling clubs and military and veterans hospitals.

The program is founded on fellowship. “It succeeds because we don’t get together just a couple of times a year,” Folkerts said. “We meet every week to tie flies or fish. We build relationships. (And) our volunteers tell us they get as much out of it as our participants.” Ron Weiss attests to that. He started one of the newest Project Healing Waters programs, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Owner of The Hook and Hackle Co., Weiss teaches rod-building at a local veterans’ hospital. “I feel so good when I drive away from our group each Monday night,” he said. “These guys have been shot at. They’ve stepped on mines. One man lost his legs because of exposure to Agent Orange. This is the least we can do to repay them.”

Project Healing Waters’ founder and president Ed Nicholson, a retired Navy captain, said the program is especially gratifying for volunteers who served in Vietnam. “Many of them felt abandoned when they returned to the States, and they want to make sure soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan get the attention they deserve.” Since 2007, volunteer hours with Project Healing Waters have jumped from 11,000 to more than 40,000, said Nicholson, whose organization is staffed with just two paid employees. “If you go by the government’s calculation that a volunteer hour is worth about $20, that’s $800,000 of donated help.”

A non-profit, Project Healing Waters works closely with the Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited, and is supported by various corporations, foundations and individuals, as well as proceeds from fishing tournaments and other special events. It buys tackle, including handicapped-adapted reels and fly-tying vises, often at discount, from The Hook and Hackle Co., Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop, The Orvis Company, Temple Fork Outfitters and others. Participants pay nothing for equipment or for mentored trips to lakes and streams, sponsored from Maine to Alaska. According to Nicholson, the experience is life-altering.

“A lot of our participants may have grown up spin-fishing or bait-casting, and, of course, it’s thrilling to have a big bass tugging on your line,” he noted. “But there’s something special about standing on a quiet river in beautiful surroundings with a fly rod in your hand, figuring out how to catch a fish on a nymph or a Woolly Bugger. “For folks who are emotionally scarred or banged up physically, it’s an incredible way to close the wounds,” Nicholson added. “Whether they catch a fish or not is immaterial. Just being there, engaged in a sport that is peaceful and reflective, is tremendously healing.”

Country music writer Sam Tate is one of Project Healing Waters’ biggest boosters. A chance encounter with a wounded veteran on Montana’s Gallatin River inspired him to pen “The River Just Knows,” which can be heard on Healing Waters’ Web site. “He caught a big trout,” recalled Tate, who lives in Nashville. “When I yelled upstream to congratulate him, I saw the scars on his face and his military haircut. There’s no mistaking a vet. I said, ‘That’s a mounter,’ and he yelled back, ‘Nah, he gave me my breath back, I’ll give him his.’ That blew me away.” Tate is a Vietnam veteran and an active fly fisher. He summed up the Project Healing Waters effort by saying, “A hospital can fix everything but a soldier’s heart. That’s the part we get to heal.” ?

Visit www.projecthealingwaters.org. Deborah Weisberg is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. For a special story from a PHW participant, and reports on PHW events including one on Maine’s Rapid River, go to the home page of fly rodreel.com. In the next several issues, we’ll profile organizations “Giving Back” and passing along the gift of fly-fishing.