Fishing program assists Soldiers’ recovery
June 16, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y., June 17, 2011 -- Remington Pond is eerily quiet except for the soft whishing of fishing lines and splashing on the water’s surface. Capt. Rob Burke stands on the edge of the pond, rhythmically casting his fly fishing line into the water. Around him, a few local volunteers and fellow Soldiers silently do the same.
The anglers are members of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a nonprofit organization that focuses on reaching out to wounded veterans to aid in their rehabilitation -- both mentally and physically.
Burke was introduced to the program following injuries he sustained while serving in Iraq with 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment in February 2008. During a mission, Burke was shot five times -- in the torso, shoulder, leg and a bullet grazed his face.
His injuries landed him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., where he underwent extensive physical therapy until he could return to his unit. During his stay at Walter Reed, a fellow wounded veteran invited him to go fly fishing with the Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing chapter there.
“I had never fly fished before, but as soon as I picked up a rod, I couldn’t put it down,” Burke said. “I fished all through my youth but had never gone fly fishing.”
Being a former college athlete and infantryman, Burke was in excellent physical shape before his injuries.
“For me, having some new-found disabilities from my injuries, (fly fishing) helped me both physically and mentally,” he said. “I went from being in great physical shape to not being able to lift my arm or walk long distances because of the extensive injuries I sustained when I was shot. I’m lucky to be here.”
Burke admits he was stubborn when it came to his rehabilitation. He was determined to push himself; fly fishing made Burke realize he could do physical activities again.
“With casting (a fishing rod), I used my right hand and didn’t have to worry about my left hand,” he said. “I had somebody there assisting me and giving me guidance. I was standing a lot, which was good for me, and eventually, I was walking around little streams. It allowed me to re-use the muscles in my hip and leg.”
Fishing not only helped him heal and fulfill his need for physical activity, it helped him heal emotionally.
“With any great trauma, there are after effects (like post-traumatic stress disorder) and survivor’s remorse,” he said. “There are a lot of mental aspects of injuries that people can’t see. For me, it allowed me to get out and go to a quiet place and do a lot of thinking, to gain self-confidence (and) it gave me a new focus."
"I enjoyed spending my time with other veterans and interacting with somebody who was going through the same things as me," he said. "It was my own counseling session.”
Upon returning to Fort Drum in late 2008, Burke continued his physical therapy and began the process of starting a Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing chapter in the North Country. He began recruiting members at the 3rd Battalion, 85th Infantry Regiment Warrior Transition Unit, or WTU.
Soldiers assigned to the WTU often are only at Fort Drum for a short time, but Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is not a “one-time event,” Burke said. Members learn a life-long skill.
One former WTU Soldier who has participated in the program since 2009, Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Coss, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, was assigned to WTU after a spinal injury.
Coss said she first learned about the program from a briefing Burke gave at WTU.
“(Fly fishing) helps a lot with the different injuries I have,” she said. “Tying flies helps with my dexterity. It works with the different limitations I have, because it teaches me different ways to do things.”
Coss encourages other wounded Soldiers to get involved with the program. She added that fishing and fly tying are methodical tasks that help her with her thought process.
“It’s relaxing being outside,” she said. “Even in the winter when we’re tying flies, it gets you out of your office or room. It allows you to talk about something different other than your disabilities or injuries. We’ve had a lot of new people come out recently, which is nice.”
Burke has recruited local volunteers to come to Fort Drum every week, many from as far as Oswego, Pulaski and Mexico, to teach Soldiers how to fly fish.
The organization is always in need of volunteers, and Burke is constantly looking for people who fly fish and are willing to share their skills.
Bob Rock, a World War II veteran from Oswego, said he’s been an avid fly fisherman for about 75 years and has been volunteering with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing since 2009. He said he enjoys fly fishing because it can fit a person’s mood.
“If you want something exciting, it can be exciting. If you want something calm, it can be (a relaxing) activity,” he said. “I was looking for something to do and a friend told me about Project Healing Waters. I thought that this was something I would very much like to do. Volunteers are supposed to be giving (and selfless), but I’m having a hell of a good time (with this program).”
While Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing was originally founded at Walter Reed in 2005 as an alternative form of rehabilitation, there are chapters all across the United States and in several countries.
The organization is open to active-duty, retired servicemembers, and veterans with non-combat-related injuries and conditions.
“People don’t have to be wounded (in combat) to participate,” Burke said. “There (are) people with (multiple sclerosis), severe arthritis, knee and joint ailments (for example). It started at Walter Reed for wounded and disabled veterans, but has expanded so something so much greater.”
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is endorsed by both the WTU and Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic here, Burke said.
Soldiers who are interested in participating in the program don’t have to go out and buy all the equipment because the organization can provide all the supplies needed. The organization also coordinates out-of-state fishing trips.
Members gather at Remington Pond from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday. During the winter and on rainy days, members meet to tie flies at Parks and Recreation.