Wounded warriors try "healing through reeling"

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jack Sanders
  • 673rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Kenai River water lapped against the bow of boats and the sky broke with sunlight as fishermen prepared for the day.

The fishing day for Alaska's section of project Healing Waters, an organization that helps veterans wounded physically or mentally, began on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

Healing Waters is a fly fishing program founded in 2005 by Ed Nicholson, a retired Navy captain, when he was recovering at a Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Project Healing Waters is an organization dedicated to the emotional and physical rehabilitation of wounded Soldiers, Airmen and veterans through fly fishing, fly tying and fly fishing related activities," said Staff Sgt. Mike Henrie, the Project Healing program director and U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific member.

"A lot of people don't think they will qualify for the program because they aren't wounded," Sergeant Henrie said. "In fact, I had one guy who had shrapnel in his leg and was walking around on crutches who said he didn't think he qualified for it.

"He said he was just walking to the chow hall and was hit by a mortar. To me you don't have to have shrapnel in your leg. You don't have to have taken a bullet. You don't have to have been rewarded for your war accomplishments to feel like you can benefit from standing in the water learning a skill, learning to fly fish."

The participants who come through Healing Waters go through several fly-tying and casting classes before their fishing trips. The trips are mainly for the wounded warriors, but participants are welcome to bring their families as well.

"We want the experience to be a healing one, and bringing the families with them is only going to add to that," Sergeant Henrie said. "This trip was unique, as it was the only one where we didn't have any family with us."

The people who come through Healing Waters have the unique opportunity to meet other individuals who share similar interests to their own.

"This is a small program, and I would like to sort of keep it that way," Sergeant Henrie said. "It's a very personal experience. There were 10 people fishing today. That experience is a completely different experience than what you would get at the Combat Fishing Tournament in Seward with over 400 people."

Because the organization is smaller, it allows for the volunteers to connect more with the recipients, he said.

"We listen to their stories," Sergeant Henrie said. "If you're just sitting at a table with a vice, and you're wrapping thread around this hook, it's therapeutic just to do it, but you just start talking."

"It's like a social outlet rather than feeling like you'd have to go out and socialize by drinking," said Airman Josh Elordi, a participant and 525th Fighter Squadron member.

"You don't have to talk, you can just tie your flies and it feels good to just do that," Sergeant Henrie said. "The same thing happens when you're out on the river. Standing in the river casting your flies, it's just you. You don't have to have a conversation, but you can if you want to. At that point, when you're fishing, it just feels good to be in the water.

"One participant said, 'It's hard to be angry at God when you're standing in the water or on a boat like that with such beauty surrounding you,"' Sergeant Henrie said. "To a lot of guys, let's face it, the military is a hard gig. A lot of guys get really angry about it; especially the guys who come back injured. They're frustrated, they're angry, they're looking for something that can give them some peace and I think this is a great outlet to do that. Then when you catch the fish, it's a huge adrenaline rush."

For other participants, the rush might be just taking in the breathtaking scenery.