Guide Carl Rettenberger watches Mark 2 as retired Marine Chan Crangle casts for trout during a Project Healing Waters outing at Harman's Cabins in Cabins, W.Va. (Mike Morones / Military Times)
Wind-driven snow flurries swirled through the rocky canyon walls and eventually melded with clear, cold river waters, making a scenic, if not productive, scenario for the small army of anglers wading in the current.
Fingers rapidly froze, trout rarely bit, and ice quickly formed to close off the circular guides on fly fishing rods.
Yet no one complained, for success wasn't measured in the number of plump rainbow trout brought to hand.
That attitude is characteristic of a Project Healing Waters outing, said Bob Gartner, program lead for the group's Fort Belvoir, Va., chapter.
Founded in 2005, Project Healing Waters uses fly fishing to help disabled service members and veterans undergoing emotional and physical rehabilitation. Initially focused in the Washington, D.C., area, it has grown to offer services to active-duty troops and veterans in military and Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide.
Skilled volunteers typically build long-term, personal relationships with recovering military members. They share their expertise and help veterans learn new skills, no matter what type of combat- or non-combat-related injury the person may have experienced.
“We don't even ask what type of injuries they may have received,” Gartner said. “We just say, ‘Welcome.' ”
While meetings and seminars to learn fly tying or rod building are informative, the real fun comes when the group travels to fish some of the best trout streams in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
This joint expedition to Harman's Cabins, nestled along the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River and against the backdrop of West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains, is one of the favorite trips for the chapters at Fort Belvoir and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
Band of brothers — and sisters
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Joshua D. Williams is a fly fishing phenomenon who honed his skills through Project Healing Waters.
Williams served as a machine gunner in Iraq, returning home unscathed. His injuries came stateside; while riding a motorcycle, a teenager ran a stop sign and hit him. Williams' legs and back were broken. His right arm was damaged beyond repair and amputated above the elbow.
He transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006, when Project Healing Waters was still in its infancy.
Fly fishing must have seemed a far-fetched notion as the young soldier recovered. “It took some convincing for me to give it a try. I was pretty depressed, but they set me up with a rod, and after I caught my first fish, I was good,” Williams said.
Anyone watching him handle fly fishing gear now can't help but be impressed. Fly fishing involves considerable technical skill in casting, setting the hook and playing the fish after hook-up.
It can be hard with two hands. Williams uses his teeth — a lot.
When retrieving a hooked fish, he anchors the rod butt under his armpit and then uses his teeth to grab the line, gaining about a foot of line with each pull.
Williams now lives near Roanoke, Va., close to good trout fishing. He works full time for an architect and engineering firm and has a budding business selling some of the flies he ties.
“At first, involvement with PHW taught me I could learn how to do things differently. If I could learn to tie flies with one hand, I could learn to tie my shoes. It taught me a way to rewire my brain, to learn things in a different manner,” Williams said. “Now, for me, it's about camaraderie, seeing old friends and meeting newcomers, seeing people you can now help out. It's a brotherhood.”
Pfc. Michelle Chaffee, of the 543rd Military Police Company, is somewhat of a rarity in the Project Healing Waters world — a female. Chaffee was injured in a non-combat incident in Afghanistan and recently underwent surgery at Fort Belvoir to repair damaged discs in her neck.
The Connecticut native's father taught her to fish as a young girl, but fly fishing is a whole new game. She was fishing with a female volunteer.
“It's a whole different way of fishing. I haven't caught any yet, but we're optimistic,” she said with a smile. “I did have a bite!”
Everyone connected to Project Healing Waters at the chapter level is an unpaid volunteer. Many are military or former military.
Participation doesn't have to end when a person transfers to a new duty station or leaves the service. More than 140 programs are spread around the country.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Mike Rodriguez, a disabled veteran now living in Virginia, was “handed-off” to Fort Belvoir upon relocating from Fort Hood, Texas. It wasn't his first transition; he had hooked up with Project Healing Waters while at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
“I've always been a big sports fan — very active. But after I hurt my knee, I couldn't run anymore. I've jumped head first into doing almost nothing but fly fishing,” Rodriguez said. “I caught five trout yesterday, all with flies that I tied.”
Gartner, who recently retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, talked up the program's therapeutic aspects, noting that beyond any physical therapy associated with the casting motion and refining hand-eye coordination, simply getting away to peaceful places with kindred souls is a welcome respite.
“I get more from the warriors than I can give to them,” said retired Marine Master Sgt. Marty Laksbergs, PHW coordinator at Quantico. “To see the looks in their faces, their smiles and enjoyment, helping them open up, no matter their disabilities — it's a brotherhood. Everybody has their stories. I'm a combat vet, and while I don't know what they went through or vice versa, we've got something to talk about.”
Retired cardiologist and former Air Force physician Mike Cherwek, a founder of the Belvoir and Quantico programs, said the heart of the PHW concept can be found in a Henry David Thoreau quote:
“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”