Walter Reed Army Medical Center would not appear to be a hopeful place, with hundreds of our service members struggling to cope with pain, depression, severely broken bodies and amputations. But providing hope is exactly the mission of Capt. Eivind Forseth who has endured 23 surgeries after a roadside bomb exploded next to his vehicle in Iraq. Forseth coordinates a program called Project Healing Waters which uses the therapeutic sport of fly-fishing to help wounded warriors reclaim their lives.
Casting a fly helps develop dexterity, depth perception, and fine motor skills. It builds strength and balance. It helps emotionally because it forces the injured and wounded warriors to focus. For a change, they’re not concentrating on the pain and discomfort but how to present a fly.
"A few things happen once you become adept at fly-fishing," Capt. Forseth relates. "You must use all your limbs. That, in turn, helps you relearn to drive, to shop, to cook…all the activities of daily living. It helps you learn to live your life again."
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of Project Healing Waters is the opportunity to fish in some of our most wild and beautiful places, with the soothing sound of the rushing water all around. It makes the warriors feel as if they are miles away from the hospital and oceans away from the combat zone. The peace, sense of calm, and the healing connection to the natural world are just what they need.
Fly-fishing is not an easy sell. The soldiers have a lot of misconceptions: that it is an old, rich man’s sport; that it is a challenge to cast. To a bass fisherman, fly-fishing is a stretch. But these guys are at the end of their rope. Their patience level is low. They are afraid that they won’t be able to participate in outdoor activities anymore.
The first thing Capt. Forseth does is visit a patient and tell them about the project and his personal experience.
"In the beginning, you are so focused on what you have lost, you can’t think about what you can do,” he explains. “I try to give them some new hope. I say, ‘I know you’re miserable now, but it’s going to get better. I want you to know the program is available and to let me know when you’re ready.’ I usually have to go back and coax them."
Project Healing Waters was the idea of retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson, an avid fly fisherman and once a patient himself. Three years ago he got the notion that he could either go fishing by himself or take a handful of wounded vets. The program has had nearly 50 participants so far from Walter Reed. There is a core group of about a dozen men. Usually six or seven go fishing at a time. Various fishing clubs and organizations in the Chesapeake watershed and around the country have helped sponsor fishing weekends and these offer a way for civilians to give back to those who sacrificed so much.
The soldiers come and go quickly at Walter Reed. Forseth and Nicholson try to track the wounded vets when they leave and return home.
"We want fly-fishing to be a lifelong sport for them," Nicholson says. "We want them to be comfortable in social situations and so we push community reintegration. We try to get them hooked up with a club at home, and the Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited, two of our sponsors, are very helpful with that."
Every state has a department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Every state should have a Project Healing Waters program and one of the project’s missions is to create a satellite program in every state. So far, eight have come on board.
Our natural resources possess incredible power to heal and the Chesapeake Bay watershed is an enormous playing field on which to conduct this important work. Programs like this remind us how important it is to protect and restore our waterways and how there are few more noble things than restoring hope in a fellow human’s life.
Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and has written 6 books about the outdoors. Her latest is with McGraw-Hill entitled, Scraping Heaven- A Family’s Journey Along the Continental Divide.
Distributed by Bay Journal News Service