S.E. Wisconsin TU reaches out to veterans through fishing

From www.jsonline.com of July 2, 2011

 

Waukesha - The rural pond was ringed with anglers, casting for and catching the "fish of smiles," the bluegill.  There were aerial displays, watery explosions and periodic hoots and hollers.  And to top it off, the participants were U.S. military veterans.

Thousands of Independence Day celebrations will occur around the United States this weekend, but none will be more meaningful than this fishing outing at Wern Valley Sportsmens Club.

The vets came from Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee. Volunteers with Southeast Wisconsin Trout Unlimited led the way.  The outing was part of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc., a national non-profit program that assists in the physical and emotional rehabilitation of military personnel and veterans.

"Now this is fly fishing at its best," said Jeff Hopkins, 55, a Marine Corps veteran from Milwaukee. A smile creased Hopkins' face as he worked to untangle his leader from pond-side vegetation.  Hopkins knows you're not fishing if you're not getting snagged a time or two. He also knows fishing, through camaraderie with other anglers and time in the outdoors, can be a sustaining, therapeutic part of life.  Seconds later, Hopkins had his line airborne and laid a long cast on the water.  A twitch of the fly later and the calm surface was broken by a striking fish. Hopkins set the hook. Fireworks ensued.

Military veterans aren't the only members of society in need of treatment. But they are disproportionately affected by traumatic brain injury, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, a sampling of the conditions facing the dozen vets on hand.  They served in conflicts ranging from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some stay at Zablocki, others are outpatients.

Project Healing Waters was formed in 2004 by Ed Nicholson, a retired Navy captain who hatched the idea while recovering from an operation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.  "The goal is simple," Nicholson said. "You have a guy who lost a leg, he's in physical therapy, we get him out there wading a stream, he gets a boost. Or a guy who lost an arm, we start him casting, he has a chance to use his new arm and actually do something that's enjoyable."

"It's good physical therapy, and then there's the emotional part."

Mike Kuhr of Milwaukee is program leader for Southeast Wisconsin Trout Unlimited. The group started the local activities for Project Healing Waters in 2009. It includes fly tying, fly casting, rod building and fishing.

Unlike many outdoors-related programs, Project Healing Waters is ongoing. Local volunteers tie flies with the vets at Zablocki twice a week year-round. Outings like the one at Wern Valley are held periodically.

"This has been an awesome addition to our programs," said Kris Kulas, an art therapist at Zablocki for the last 23 years. "The volunteers provide a lot of one-on-one mentoring and a healthy option for activities."

Kulas and Cassandra McCormick, another Zablocki therapist, accompanied the vets on the fishing outing and arranged food and beverages for lunch.

SEWTU volunteers spent approximately 1,100 hours at Zablocki over the last 12 months as part of the program, Kuhr said.  "It's rewarding for us, no doubt about it," Kuhr, 34, said. "I never served in the military and this is one way to let the vets know how much we appreciate them."

The national organization distributes fly tying and fly fishing equipment to the local programs. Local volunteers donate time, gear and expertise.  Sometimes that comes packaged as entertainment. Volunteer Rick Carr of Pewaukee was demonstrating a "steeple" cast, designed to keep the line out of trees behind the angler, when he promptly wrapped his around an overhead power line.  Laughter is a welcome addition to any therapy; Carr was happy to oblige.

Steve Williams, owner of Wern Valley, has hosted two fishing outings for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing on his property.  In addition to providing free access to two ponds, Williams opened the clubhouse to the group for lunch.  The ponds feature healthy, willing populations of bluegill and some largemouth bass that had a hard time resisting the flies presented by the vets.  With weeds growing along shore and under the water, a floating fly like a foam spider pattern was just the ticket.

For patients facing disabling conditions that may last a lifetime, Project Healing Waters can offer quick, tangible progress.

"I'm pretty proud of it," said Dan Moody, 58, a Navy vet from Milwaukee, holding the first fly he tied, just four days earlier. He keeps the fly in a pill vial.  Minutes after arriving at the pond, Moody made his first fly casts under the tutelage of volunteer Herb Oechler of Wauwatosa. And minutes later, he landed his first bluegill, an 8-inch dandy.  Moody swelled his red, white and blue suspenders as he showed off the fish, then released it.

James Flagg, 50, an Army vet who lives in New Berlin, said the program enhances others at the center. "It adds something to your life to concentrate on," Flagg said. "It doesn't take the trouble away, but it gives you something positive to focus on that day."  Without it, Flagg said he and others can find themselves in a "funk, listening to the bad stories in our heads."

From the first program at Walter Reed in 2004, Project Healing Waters is now active at 100 sites in 38 states.  Numbers could never tell the whole story.

Involvement with Project Healing Waters has helped Hopkins, the Marine who was untangling his line, regain his independence.  Hopkins refers to Zoan Kulinski, 57, an SEWTU volunteer from Hustisford, as his mentor.  Hopkins is now an accomplished fly angler who won a creative arts contest with a "shadow box" of flies he tied.  He returns to Zablocki as a volunteer with the program.

"There's nothing like fishing," Hopkins said. "You have to believe me. Nothing."

 

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