ALONG HERMOSA CREEK – The mission of Project Healing Waters is to give back to those who gave.
It’s done through fly-fishing, as was evident Tuesday, when 15 active-duty or discharged members of the armed forces – all with disabilities – tried their luck on Hermosa Creek or a tributary near here.
Each participant was accompanied by a volunteer affiliated with Trout Unlimited from Durango, Cortez, Tucson, Lake City, Fort Collins or Washington, D.C.
“The idea is to get them away from what they’re dealing with every day,” said Steve Reiter, a volunteer from Tucson. “They’re battling physical and mental problems and personal stress.”
“It’s a miracle what happens to some of them through this program,” said Reiter, a retired electrical engineer.
Brad, 30, who gives only his first name, was an Army captain who suffered traumatic brain injury, nerve damage and a back injury when he was hit by shrapnel near Sadr City, Iraq. He received a medical discharge in 2009.
As he speaks, Brad fingers a good-luck charm hanging around his neck. It’s a bullet from a 7.62-millimeter weapon that ripped a banana from his hand before embedding itself in the earth.
“I didn’t think I had the coordination to fish or that I could do the necessary walking,” Brad said. “But this program doesn’t let you fail. They take time to mentor you.
“I still have a problem with memory – I didn’t recognize my wife for a couple of weeks when I returned – and a problem with balance,” Brad said. “But I’m learning that I can do things, and I intend to apply that attitude to other challenges in life.”
Robin Marsett of Tucson is the coordinator of the Project Healing Waters visit, the third annual trip to Southwest Colorado.
“If they’re in Healing Waters, they’re determined to succeed,” Marsett said.
The outing here was only the first day of fishing. On Wednesday, the group tested the Animas River and Cunningham Creek near Silverton. Today, participants were scheduled to spend the day on the San Juan River near Farmington.
D.J. Jones, 24, is in a military transition unit at Fort Huachuca in Arizona awaiting discharge in about six months.
Jones was in an armored unit in Afghanistan last October when the all-terrain vehicle he was driving was struck by an improvised explosive device.
The explosion broke Jones’ back, nose and lower jaw, where he now has a titanium plate. The officer in charge, a gunner, another soldier and an interpreter were injured to lesser degrees.
“Fishing is relaxing because I don’t have to keep a lot of things on my mind,” said Jones, who has FBI training in border protection awaiting him when he’s a civilian.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing started in Washington, D.C., in 2004 when Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson, who was being treated at Walter Reed Hospital, recognized that wounded or disabled veterans needed activities to help them heal.
An avid fly fisherman, Nicholson believed the sport has qualities that promote physical and emotional recovery, David Folkerts, operations manager of Healing Waters, said by telephone from La Plata, Md.
The organization received its nonprofit status in 2007 and now has 100 programs in 40 states.
The program requires three elements– fly-fishing club volunteers to work one-on-one with veterans, a military facility or veterans hospital to act as host and veterans to participate.
The program teaches fly casting, fly tying and rod building to improve physical coordination and takes participants on trips to test their skills. Beginners as well as experienced anglers are welcome.
In 2010, 3,240 members of the armed forces and veterans took part in Healing Waters programs. More than 2,000 volunteers donated 80,000 hours of their time.
Healing Waters receives no government funding and operates on private and corporate donations and foundation grants.