For the past three weeks I have had the privilege of sitting in on fly tying sessions of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) at Fort Meade. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is a national organization "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."
The program began with efforts by retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson at the "old Walter Reed" to help rehabilitate wounded veterans from the conflict in Iraq and later Afghanistan through fly fishing activities.
The PHWFF chapter at Fort Meade is one of 178 programs in all 50 states. The chapter hosts weekly sessions year round providing food, equipment and materials for most aspects of fly fishing and opportunities for relaxed camaraderie with fellow service personnel and volunteers.
The program serves all military personnel and veterans including members of Army Reserve and National Guard units and also welcomes family members.
Sessions are scheduled indoors each Thursday evening from 6:30-9 p.m. in winter months. In warmer weather activities are held in a picnic pavilion on the base's Lake Burba from 5:30 until dark offering opportunities to put into practice the fly fishing, rod building, fly casting and fly fishing skills learned on bluegills, bass and, on occasion, trout stocked in the lake.
PHWFF files bulge with photos of activities and testimonies of thanks from participants in the program, many of whom adapted through the fly fishing activities to living with missing limbs and prostheses.
One short article can't begin to describe the good this program does. Perhaps one way to tell the story of the PHWSS program at Fort Meade is in the words of two active participants, both medically retired and facing further surgeries or procedures.
Valerie Takesue was sent directly from a hospital in Korea to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Meade and told she would be medically retired as a major after 26 years of active service. Thus she had to deal with both physical problems and the abrupt and unplanned termination of her military career.
"When I came back from Korea, I didn't want to do anything," she said. "It has given me a positive focus in life after the military. It got me out doing things besides being upset all the time. Fly fishing actually gave me a focus to concentrate on something else, a lot of the negatives have changed to positives.
"It's been very therapeutic. I've been so limited in what I can do; fishing is not too hard. It's been wonderful for my psyche; it's been wonderful for me physically, too."
With her recovering confidence gained through program participation since August of 2011 she started playing golf again, has just lately picked up the guitar and looks forward to building a Tenkara rod in the PHWFF class next year.
"The other thing besides the great volunteers is the camaraderie of the service people, to be able to sit there and talk to people who are in almost in the same position where you're coming from."
Through the program she has fished locally, in Tennessee and Virginia, and even had a fly fishing trip to England.
Finksburg resident Daniel Comrey served 14½ years as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. After five consecutive tours in Iraq, he was medically retired with neck and back injuries, multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Daniel has been in the program for "one and half to two years."
"With PTSD I was kinda living like a hermit. Project Healing Waters has been life-changing for me," he said. "I don't know where I'd be without it. It got me around people again, laughing again, making new friends again.
"With the TBIs I had problems with concentration. Fly tying helped a lot with that. Living out here, especially up where I live in Finksburg, there's a lot of trout fishing right down the street" at Morgan Run.
"It's been great. It's really helped me out a lot. I wish there was more promotion for the program. I'm sure there're tons of people just like me out there."
(We're working on it, Daniel.)
He takes local weekend fishing trips with some of the folks from Fort Meade and sometimes, "the folks come to my house, and we go right down the road." He hopes to go or more PHWFF trips in 2016.
PHWFF also sponsored him and in a tournament in Florida, competing with participants from all over the world. He and another veteran finished second, the third year in a row a veteran's team finished first or second in this highly competitive multi-species contest demanding bait, lure and fly fishing.
Other active participants at this time are retired veterans Joe Belich, Scott Beaudry, and Shawn Cushing and active duty member Mason Lowery.
As can be understood from the above typical comments from wounded veterans, PHWFF inspires fierce loyalty from a group of volunteers. Larry Vawter started the Fort Meade chapter when he was president of the Potomac-Patuxent Chapter of Trout Unlimited. In the ensuing six years, the only weekly session he missed was the week of his mother's death. Carl Smolka, the chief fly tying instructor, started with Larry, continues today, and last year began working with another PHWFF chapter at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Other volunteers active now at Fort Meade include Dave Buck and Mike Shydlinski. Interestingly, only Shydlinski is a veteran. A number of organizations help support and assist the local and national programs.
The movement of service personnel through the system due to return of wounded veterans to active duty and reassignment, retiring and moving to other locations and reassignment of active duty personnel lead to regular turnover and call for constant recruiting of new members by Vawter in addition to the weekly meetings.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing has only four paid staff and depends on hundreds of volunteers to serve thousands of veterans and servicemen; it is not associated with Wounded Warrior Project.