Project Healing Waters: Rehabilitating Wounded Warriors through Fly Fishing

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By Marianne Weaver

Most volunteers are retired military personnel from all branches.

Marc Woolson served in the U.S. Navy from 1994 to 2002, deploying across the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, as well as Africa. Like many veterans, he’s battled anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I had heard a veteran discussing Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing at work,” he said. “I then immediately started doing some research into it.”

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc. (PHWFF) is a nonprofit 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.

“I was talking about the program to my wife, expressing interest in it,” recalled Woolson. “My wife, knowing me way too well, called and signed me up. We both knew I was not going to do it. I always need a little push.”

The group meets every Wednesday evening at the Weapons Training Battalion building, 27211 Garand Road, on Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Grassroots Effort Creates a National Program

PHWFF was founded in 2005 to serve wounded military service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, PHWFF has expanded nationwide, establishing its program in Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units, and Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and clinics, and locally at both Quantico and Ft. Belvoir.

Even after Woolson’s wife set up his registration, he was hesitant to attend. “I was so nervous I had a panic attack at work. I called my wife to ask her if she would be mad if I didn’t go,” he said. “Of course, she said ‘yes.’ So, reluctantly, I went. I was still quite a bit nervous at the meeting, not knowing what to expect. But ever since that first meeting, I haven’t looked back.”

Randy Rueb, a PHWFF volunteer who retired from the Marine Corps in 1998, first heard about the program years ago when the local news covered then-Vice President Dick Cheney fly casting at his residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

“I thought it was a totally brilliant idea to give someone an opportunity to learn a skill that is fun and challenging and you can do your whole life,” he said. “It is challenging and gives them an opportunity to think of something other than their problems.”

Rueb said the current group of Quantico participants is composed of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who have a range of injuries.

“I don’t ask about their injuries, unless we are going out on the water, and it’s for safety purposes,” he said. “We want to make it fun. If they have an issue, we’ll work around it. And we can have fun and not be worried about it. The biggest concern is to make sure they are safe.”

Trips range from public fishing holes along the Rappahannock and Shenandoah Rivers to privately owned and stocked ponds.

“People have opened their homes and properties to us,” said Rueb. “We’ll go and look at the area and see if it’s easy access for wheelchairs and walkers, and then we’ll figure out if it’s best for a small group, a large group or a family trip.”

Group Camaraderie Keeps Members Engaged

Retired Marine Marty Laksbergs started volunteering with the program nine years ago and took over as program lead at Quantico in 2011. Like most of the organization’s volunteers, Laksbergs was just looking for a way to give back to the military community.

“We help wounded and disabled service members find a new normal. We try to get them to back to what they like doing. No one cares what your injury is. No one cares what service you were in,” said Laksbergs. “It is not about the fishing. It is about hanging out and starting to talk and joke.”

Woolson noted that the camaraderie drew him into the group. “The best part of the program is the people,” he said. “They are some of the nicest and most helpful people you will ever meet. There is never any judgment, just helpful people.”

That said, the meetings aren’t just filled with a bunch of nice folks who gather to talk—some of these volunteers are fly fishing experts.

“Volunteers are mostly retired military from all branches,” Laksbergs noted. “They all want to give back. They have big hearts, and most have been fishing for a long time. We have one professional fly tier, some professional rod builders and some professional guides. They all come for the right reasons.”

Woolson has benefited greatly from participating with this group—and not just with his fishing skills.

“Fly fish tying is an art,” he noted. “It has helped me with my anxiety, depression and PTSD. It has also helped me focus more. When I started, my hands would shake so badly that I had a hard time fly tying.”

“I kept breaking the thread and materials,” he continued. ‘I would get frustrated. Just having the mentorship, time and kind words from the other veterans and volunteers, I am able to clear my mind and focus on what I am doing. And better yet, my hands have almost completely stopped shaking. My flies still need some work, but I am getting better every time.”

To join, send an email to [email protected] or a message through the local chapter Facebook page. After that, PHWFF volunteers handle all details from supplying materials, offering guidance and providing transportation for outings.

Marianne Weaver ([email protected]) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an MJ from Temple University. She lives in Gainesville, Va., with her husband and two children.

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