"Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. (PHWFF) is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings."
That's the mission statement of this non-profit organization.
The organization began in 2005 when retired Navy captain Ed Nicholson was recuperating from cancer surgery in Walter Reed Army Medical Center and witnessed wounded and disabled men and women, many of them amputees, struggling with their recovery processes. Nicholson introduced several fellow patients to fly fishing and related fly tying and rod building as a form of rehabilitation. From there developed an organization with over 200 programs in all 50 states with affiliates in Germany, Canada, and Australia.
In 2015 PHWFF reported serving 7,424 injured and disabled military service personnel and disabled veterans. This is primarily a volunteer organization with six paid staff operating from LaPlata, Maryland, and 85 percent of funding going to programs. Last year 3,516 program volunteers dedicated more than 200,000 hours of services by offering 3,460 fly tying classes, 944 rod building classes, 1082 casting classes and 1,316 fishing outings.
Army veteran, Robert Bartlett, explains the program's growth simply: "If you do something out of love, it will grow."
My story of last December covered weekly activities of the Fort Meade program, but I wanted to see the PHWFF in the field. On May 1, I traveled to Virginia to cover the fishing day of the 10th Annual 2-Fly Tournament. The site was beautiful Rose River Farm, featuring a private trophy trout stream, the facility donated for the weekend by PHWFF Emeritus Board Chairman, Douglas Dear.
This was a superbly organized fund-raising event (I've been in the business.) for PHWFF under a huge (and waterproof) tent with hundreds of volunteers including guides, numerous corporate sponsors and such celebrity guests as keynote speaker, Tom Brokaw, and legendary fly fishermen Lefty Kreh and Joe Humphreys among others.
Teams of 13 veterans with 13 professional guides competed under a complicated rules format allowing only two flies per team member with points allotted for three fish and total length. Each team was assigned one "beat" (station) along the stream for a 90-minute session in the morning and a different beat for the 90-minute afternoon session.
Gentle, intermittent rains did not limit the fishing, and I saw plenty of rainbow and brook trout and a smattering of browns taken, mostly on the predictable worm, wooly bugger and soft hackle patterns. The veteran anglers showed intense focus, and the 2-fly rules often sent the guides scrambling after errant casts through shoreline shrubbery along the 30-foot wide Rose River.
But my focus and that of the event was on the veterans. I studied their bios and comments in the program yearbook, interviewed a few and eave-dropped on conversations with this question in mind: What is PHWFF to them?
The devotion to PHWFF by the veterans and those supporting them, the many testimonials of veterans and spouses on social media and the explosive growth of PHWFF all attest to the efficacy of the program. Reasons tend to fall into two broad categories.
The first is the nature of fly fishing: the beauty of the natural settings; the rhythmic casting motions; the focus outside of oneself needed to fish, to tie flies, to make rods; the restoration of hand-eye coordination and ensuing confidence. "It allows these guys to unplug from the daily grind of trying to recover," Nicholson says." "For many of these guys, fly fishing has become a tool of recovery, both mentally and physically."
Marine helicopter Todd Ford describes it, "The therapeutic value is that it's not therapy."
Bartlett observes, "When you fly fish, everything else goes away, the war, the pain. The focus is on the fish."
The second is the empathy, support and camaraderie of fellow injured veterans who have experienced "the dark place" and still struggle with physical and emotional issues.
Over and over I heard stories of suffering veterans finding in PHWFF men and women who could understand their situations, who could talk with them and support them through their struggles with issues of pain, PTSD, depression, isolation, physical limitations, career and financial losses and other problems.
Nicholson says, "When we started this I thought it would just be great to take some of these guys fishing. But I can't tell you the number of times someone has come up to me and said: 'Thank you. This program saved my life.'" "Wives come up to me and say, 'Thank you for giving me my husband back.'"
But in listening to conversations among the veterans a third reason emerged, "a ripple effect" in their terms, where one helpful act leads to others and to others. The men and women in this program, including many of the volunteers and supporters, are mission-oriented, military veterans who have never forgotten the service aspect of military service. PHWFF goes beyond the treatment therapies the veterans have been receiving, beyond the benefits of fly fishing and friendships, and offers them a new mission of providing healing services to fellow veterans and to others beyond veterans' circles. So those being healed become healers, eager to share what they have received.
Retired Marine Captain Kim Smith summarizes: "Sometimes I find myself speechless when people ask me what Project Healing Waters has done for me because words are untouchable to what this program has given my life and others. PHWFF saved my life and I'm completely serious about that. That's why I want to do everything I can to give back even though I'm still in recovery myself."
Retired Army veteran George Draper adds: "It takes my mind off the pain and gives me a place to be with other veterans. I'm so grateful that I can start giving back to an organization that has given so much to me and so many other veterans. Veterans helping veterans! A new world opened for me."