The power to heal body and soul

Rumford Falls Times
July 29, 2009

TOWNSHIP C – The only sound was the constant rushing of the water. The nearest paved road was 16 miles away. And the only thing on Dave Walker’s mind was when the next trout was going to hit the hand-tied fly he had just cast into the Rapid River.

“It’s wonderful – you get out here and it takes your mind off everything else,” he said. “It’s just you and the fish.”

Walker, who spent 16 years in the military, was injured three times by roadside bombs. In the last explosion, in August of 2008, he suffered a brain injury that affected his coordination, speech, and memory.

He and a dozen other disabled veterans and active duty soldiers spent last week at historic Forest Lodge as guests of Aldro French, owner of Rapid River Fly Fishing.

It was the third time that French, who maintains the historic property much as it was when Louise Dickinson Rich wrote her best-seller, We Took to the Woods, there in the early 1940s, has hosted groups of disabled veterans and their fishing guides through Project Healing Waters.

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Beginning with five veterans who spent three days on the river in 2007, the trip has grown each year, in both the number of participants and the length of their stay.

A Vietnam veteran himself, French said he welcomes the opportunity to participate in the unique program. “I couldn’t be happier. This is a way for me to give back,” he said.

Walker first became involved in the program while in the hospital recovering from his injuries. He took part in fly-tying classes and a fishing trip in Virginia sponsored by Project Healing Waters.

The Maine native, who had grown up fishing and was adept at tying his own flies before his injury, quickly became hooked on the program, which offered him a way to return to a sport he loved.

Because of his injury, “when I first started trying to tie flies again, it was hard for me,” he said. His brain knew what to do, but at first had trouble communicating the message to his fingers.

With time and practice, Walker, who has been back home in Levant since April and received his discharge in June, was able to overcome the challenge. He had a box full of hand-tied flies to show for it.

“Most of these are my own original creations,” he said proudly, including one named for his wife, Kelly.

Walker lit up when asked about his children, who are three and five.

“I’m already teaching them to tie flies. They sit on my lap and hold the bobbin (that feeds the thread out). They love it,” he said, adding softly, “They’re glad to have me home.”

Lt. Col Douglas Matty, Vice President of Military Affairs for Project Healing Waters, joined the veterans and their guides for the week of fishing and camaraderie. He described how the program, started by retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson, came into being.

While recovering from surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, Nicholson witnessed first-hand the difficulties faced by wounded and disabled soldiers as they struggled to recover from and adapt to their injuries.

A lifelong outdoorsman, Nicholson got the idea of using the physical activities of fly-fishing to substitute for more traditional manipulative therapy exercises. He arranged for instructors to come to the hospital to teach lessons in the basics of fly-fishing—fly-tying, assembling a fly rod, and casting.

When the soldiers had recovered sufficiently to leave the hospital for short periods of time, they were taken on day fishing trips to nearby streams and rivers.

Nicholson’s idea had taken hold, and Project Healing Waters was born. Since the program’s inception in 2005 it has helped more than a thousand servicemen and veterans to discover the therapeutic benefits of fly-fishing.

Partnering with national organizations Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers to provide one-on-one volunteer guides, Project Healing Waters reached out to VA hospitals throughout the country to establish satellite facilities.

“We wanted the support that the soldiers received at Walter Reed to continue when they returned home or established new homes following their discharge,” Matty said.

The first of those satellite programs was established at the VA hospital in Togus in 2007, after recreation therapist Teri Olson, who heads the Adaptive Sports program there, brought the idea back from a conference. Both French and the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited quickly jumped on board, ensuring the program’s success.

In addition to the Rapid River trip, Olson’s program takes veterans on annual fishing expeditions to the Moose River in Jackman and the East Outlet of the Kennebec in Greenville. Olson has also arranged for bi-weekly classes to be held at the hospital so participants can learn fly-fishing techniques before heading out into the wild.

She said the Adaptive Sports Program at Togus is designed for physically disabled veterans who require assistance in order to participate in recreational activities.

“We have a core group of about 30 veterans who participate in a wide variety of our programs, and many others who choose one or two activities,” said Olson, who has run recreation programs for 35 years. “In the winter they ski, bowl, and do archery, and in the summer, it’s fishing, kayaking, golf.”

She said one of the most gratifying aspects of the Project Healing Waters fishing trips is their far-reaching effect.

“This isn’t something that lasts for a few days, or a week. The changes are lifelong changes,” Olson said. “Veterans have come to me a year later and said that this was the thing that made the difference for them, that turned things around. And the impact on families is huge…wives have called me to say ‘you’ve saved our marriage.’”

Olson’s boss, Togus VA Medical Center Director Brian Stiller, dressed in hip waders and a camouflage t-shirt, was clearly enjoying his week away from the office.

“We often forget about the therapeutic power of recreation to heal the body and soul,” he said. “By working together, we can set up a safe environment for that therapeutic recreation. I am constantly amazed at how recreation therapy can have such a big impact.”

Joining the veterans for a day on the river was Peter Ogden, Director of Maine Veterans’ Services and an avid fly-fisherman. Ogden, himself a Vietnam veteran, said he understood first-hand the healing power of nature and its ability to restore the soul.

“I’ve experienced it myself,” he said. “And the three friends I fish with most of the time are all Vietnam veterans, too.”

Stiller, who worked at VA hospitals in Minnesota and West Virginia before coming to Togus two years ago, said he has been impressed by the level of support and the attention paid to veterans’ issues by high-level members of state government in Maine.

“Governor Baldacci spends a lot of time at the VA hospital,” he said. “I’ve never had that kind of face time with a governor before.”

In the two years since the first satellite program was established at Togus, Project Healing Waters has grown to include more than 70 programs nationwide. Thanks to donations of lodging and services and the Trout Unlimited members who volunteer their time as guides, the trips are provided at no cost to the participants.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Greg Ponte, President of the Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “I think of Project Healing Waters as a synergistic entity – we have the disabled soldiers and veterans, the volunteers, and the Togus VA staff working together to make it work; no one party could create this whole.”

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