In the wake of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s admirable exposé of the disgraceful Disabled Veterans National Foundation fundraising scam, it was nice to see this piece in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal about Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and fly tying education and outings.”
Reeling and Healing
The stretch of Spruce Creek that runs about 20 miles south of State College, Pa., is often called the “River of Presidents.” Dwight Eisenhower fished here; Jimmy Carter still does. So do many CEOs and ballplayers who can afford the five-figure initiation fees and four-figure annual dues at some of the exclusive fly-fishing clubs.
But for a few days earlier this month, Spruce Creek became the “River of Heroes.” That’s when Homewaters, one of those private clubs, hosted Project Healing Waters, a unique program that brings disabled vets to some of the most magnificent fly-fishing spots in the country.
Healing Waters is the brainchild of Ed Nicholson, who spent 30 years in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer before working a decade more as a defense contractor. In 2005, at the height of the carnage in Iraq, he was at Walter Reed and saw the soldiers and sailors hobbling around on crutches and struggling through rehab, and thought, “I should take a couple of these guys fishing with me.”
And so he did. “Seven years later,” the Journal reports, “Healing Waters is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that has 130 branches nationwide.”
For the definitive portrait of Healing Waters, though, you need to check out the 2011 cover story in The Weekly Standard by Matt Labash, one of the best magazine writers of our generation, as the hardworking staff has noted on numerous occasions.
With wounded warriors in quiet waters
Nearly every fly fisherman I know is a celebrator of the absurd. You have to be to spend years of your life standing in cold water, flogging it endlessly with a plastic stick, hoping to outsmart a fish with a chickpea-sized brain by duping it with feather and fur. If you’re successful and conscientious, you will punch a hole through its mouth with sharp steel, play it to hand, admire its beauty or power, then gently return it to the water to swim away freely, as if this senseless blood pageant had never occurred. It’s a pastime that rewards those who don’t examine it too closely.
When people ask for justification of such folly, I usually skip the purple stuff about communing with nature, or the genetic imperative to scratch the predatory itch, or the satisfaction that comes from holding a wild creature in a world that tames just about everything. Like most fellow zealots, I’m not interested in justification. I just need to fish. And as I’ve written before, if you spend enough time on the water, you will meet all kinds of fishermen who are dropouts and ne’er-do-wells, men bent on cheating time and ducking out of the world. But you will meet very few hopeless fishermen. For fishing forces optimism even into the soul-sick and the beaten. As the Scottish novelist John Buchan said, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”
And so last month, I came here to meet an outfit of hope merchants, led by a retired Marine colonel, Eric Hastings, cofounder and head of Warriors and Quiet Waters. Since 2007, Hastings and his merry band of 276 guides, drivers, cooks, board members, and volunteers—nobody is paid, including him—carry out a mission that is simply stated: “to employ the therapeutic and rehabilitative qualities of fly fishing for trout on Montana’s rivers and streams to help heal traumatically wounded U.S. servicemen and women.” Hastings elaborates: “I know what it’s like to be in combat, and I also know that semper fi—always faithful—is more than just a slick motto. You can’t just walk off into the sunset. This is an honor contract between Americans and the people who were sent to war in their name. It’s about serving your fellow warriors.”
What follows is a remarkable narrative of fishing for redemption. Every American should read it.