Retired Army Capt. David Folkerts on a fly-fishing trip in Montana. (Courtesy of David Folkerts)
Army Capt. David Folkerts dodged death in 2005 when a roadside bomb exploded a few feet from him while on a foot patrol in Taji, Iraq. The blast rattled Folkerts’ brain inside his skull and drove shrapnel into his left arm, severing an artery and paralyzing his hand.
After two years of intense therapy and recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Folkerts, now retired, regained the use of his arm. But it took a fly-fishing trip to Montana in 2007 to put his head on the path to recovery.
Folkerts, a combat engineer and Ranger, was never diagnosed by the Army as having post-traumatic stress disorder, and he stayed in denial of such symptoms as hypervigilance, anxiety and anger until he was finally rated by the Veterans Affairs Department as having the disorder.
Following his medical retirement, he took the advice of a friend who appeared to have climbed out of a similar “dark place” — and went fly-fishing.
Fly-fishing “flipped a switch in my mind, that there is so much good stuff going on in life. So what if you can’t do things you used to do as well? There is still a whole lot you can do,” said Folkerts, 32, who now lives with his wife and son in Frederick, Md.
Like Folkerts, many troops and veterans are finding relief from PTSD symptoms in recreational hobbies such as model-building, horseback riding, yoga, shooting and even knitting.
But researchers say these activities may be more than entertaining distractions. Focused recreation, or “present-moment, mind-body activities,” may help streng-then concentration, improve positive thinking and dash the negativity associated with PTSD.
Oregon Health and Science University researcher Helane Wahbeh studies the effects of “mindfulness” meditation on veterans diagnosed with PTSD. According to Wahbeh, engaging hobbies or recreational activities make it difficult for a person’s mind to wander and act as a barrier to intrusive thoughts.
Easing 'fight or flight'
These activities also increase a person’s ability to relax, “helping teach the autonomic nervous system to not respond immediately with ‘fight or flight,’ ” she said. “And the more experience patients have building relaxation response, the more they have something to lean on when they need to calm down.”
Roughly one-fifth of the 2.4 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD or depression, and many, like Folkerts, are reluctant to seek help. A recent Pentagon survey of active-duty troops indicates that nearly 40 percent believe getting help for a mental condition would hurt their careers.
Psychiatrists and psychologists say proven PTSD treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy work, but since persuading troops to seek treatment is a challenge, researchers are exploring the effectiveness of alternatives such as recreational hobbies that might draw in skeptics of traditional therapy.
Australian motivational consultant Nola Hennessy said knitting helped her deal with PTSD related to a childhood trauma. She said some Australian Department of Veterans Affairs therapists are embracing knitting and needlepoint as adjuncts to counseling.
“If I went a week without knitting, I was more susceptible to triggers. I’d have nightmares at night or night sweats or flashbacks. It works. People with PTSD must have confidence that they will recover, and this can facilitate it,” she said.
There is little scientific data that prove the benefits of recreational activities for PTSD, but stories abound of sufferers who have found hope in gardening, restoring boats and cars, riding horses and more.
Rasul Mowatt, an associate professor in Indiana University’s Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies Department, analyzed the feedback of 67 veterans who participated in therapeutic fly-fishing and found that all reported positive experiences.
“There’s something compelling — something we saw in veterans from multiple wars — and all responded favorably to the experience, even commenting how they preferred this experience to other forms of treatment,” Mowatt said.
He suggests that future research should focus on whether these activities have lasting effects or could be considered alternative treatments.
“Early research indicates that maybe we should consider treating with traditional programs, but maybe offer alternatives that veterans can sign up for, whether it’s basketball leagues, fishing or riding. Each have yielded some successful response from veterans,” Mowatt said.
Folkerts never engaged in traditional therapy, but is a convert to therapeutic fly-fishing. He’s now the chief operations officer for Healing Waters Fly Fishing, an organization that sponsors trips for wounded or ill veterans.
“To combat PTSD — which is the overload of your senses due to traumatic experiences — you have to put someone in a serene, calm, beautiful environment. And trout don’t live in ugly places,” he said.