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Streams of Consciousness: Fly Fishing Program Helps Wounded Warriors Feel Good Again

Mar 13, 2015 10:39AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

By Barbara Pash // Photography by Larry French

On a spring evening, U.S. Army Sgt. Major Angel Alvarez sits at a picnic table and watches the sun set over the lake. “It gives me a sense of serenity,” says Alvarez, a soldier on medical leave. “I needed to put away my inner anger.”

In 2003, during the initial American troop push in Iraq, Alvarez’s vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Today, the 59-year-old husband and father walks with a cane, wears dark glasses to shield his eyes, and has memory and hearing loss.

The Alvarez family lives at Fort George Meade, an army base in Anne Arundel County where he is a member of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a unique group for disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans.

Tonight, the weekly meeting of Project Healing Waters is underway. Group members like Alvarez and volunteers gather at an outdoor pavilion overlooking Lake Burba, an oasis of calm in the midst of the base. Ducks paddle among the cattails at the shoreline. Walking trails circle the banks. A deck juts out over the water.

Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit organization, has 170 groups like Fort Meade’s around the country. It works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Defense military installations, and U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Transition Units to promote the physical and emotional recovery of disabled personnel. 

Trout Unlimited, an environmentally-focused nonprofit that preserves and protects streams, lakes and habitats of trout, salmon, and other cold-water species, uses its local chapters for the Project Healing Waters groups. The Fort Meade group was organized five years ago to serve its Wounded Warrior Transition Unit and disabled retirees. It wasn’t easy to get permission.

“We went through a process with Fort Meade officials,” says Larry Vawter, past president of Trout Unlimited’s Potomac-Patuxent Chapter that mans the group. “Their concern was that a lot of programs were being created for the unit because it was chic. They wanted to know if we’d be here for the long run.”

The answer was a resounding yes. The Fort Meade group meets every Thursday regardless of weather and season—two hours during the winter months at a meeting room on the base, three hours during the summer season at a pavilion on Lake Burba.

Vawter, a married businessman from Ellicott City, has served as the group’s project leader from the start. He has missed only one meeting, and that was for a family funeral. Likewise, Carl Smolka, a Potomac-Patuxent Chapter member who helped to found the Fort Meade group, is a consistent presence. “There are times we don’t fish at all,” Smolka, a retired businessman, says of the winter months.

“We tie flies, we make fishing rods, we sit and talk. But we’re always here,” he says.

The group has six to 30 members, the number varying as soldiers cycle in and out of the base’s wounded warrior unit. Members have included a father-son duo who fished together. “The dad was a veteran. They competed to see who could catch the most fish,” Smolka remembers.

A six-year-old boy whose soldier-father had died was a member. “His mother brought him to meetings. A volunteer worked with him in the stream,” he continues.

A soldier who couldn’t use one arm learned to fish with a Japanese tenkara fly rod that works well one handed. “He caught a fish,” Smolka says.

Since the Fort Meade group began, more than 200 soldiers and their families have been involved. Almost none had fly fishing experience. Half had fished before but hadn’t done so in years. The other half had never even held a fishing pole.

Before he was sent to Iraq, Alvarez fished fairly regularly at army bases in Kentucky and Tennessee. He did spin-rod fishing, though, not fly fishing, which eschews live bait by using artificial “flies,” hand-made and tailored to the feeding habits of different species.

“I didn’t think it was for me, until I met Larry and Carl, and they taught me how,” Alvarez says of fly fishing.

To Vawter and Smolka, both longtime fly fishermen, it’s the perfect sport for disabled soldiers. The main activity during the winter months is tying flies and building fishing rods, both of which require eye-hand coordination and focus. The summer months are spent outdoors at a pavilion learning to cast and fishing in the lake for trout, bass, and blue gills.

“Seeing the smiles when someone catches a fish is wonderful,” Vawter says. Even if they don’t catch anything, he adds, “Seeing them laughing and cutting up, it makes me feel good inside.”

David Buck is a longtime volunteer with the Fort Meade group. “We create an environment that feels safe. There are no requirements, no restrictions,” says Buck, a businessman from Baltimore County. “They’ve gone through a lot of trauma. If they just want to sit and talk to someone, that’s okay.”

While all Project Healing Waters groups around the country have the same activities, there are variations depending on members’ injuries and the number of volunteers a chapter can muster. Some groups meet twice a month; some are for disabled soldiers only, not their families too.

“Each group is unique to its area. Some groups work largely with Vietnam War veterans. We have groups in the southwest that aren’t near water. There’s so much more to it than fly fishing,” says Daniel Morgan, spokesman for national Project Healing Waters, headquartered in LaPlata, Maryland. “We’re about building relationships, about camaraderie.”

Group members’ injuries may include post-traumatic stress disorder, amputation, traumatic burns, and nerve, eye, and brain damage. Many groups work with Veteran Affairs therapists and wounded warrior units to come up with activities that suit the local members’ needs, Morgan says. 

Before starting Project Healing Waters at Fort Meade, Vawter and Smolka worked with John Coburn and a similar group at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland.

James Conyers, a U.S. Air Force sergeant stationed at Fort Meade, joined the group two years ago. As a teenager, the now 30-year-old disabled veteran remembers fishing every chance he got in the Minnesota lakes.

“I knew the basics of fly fishing but hadn’t really done it. Now I make my own fly fishing rods,” says Conyers, sitting at a picnic table in the pavilion, his wife and two daughters a table away. “It’s so nice to be with this group of people. I look forward to each meeting.”

Valerie Takesue grew up in New Jersey, where her father regularly took her spin-rod fishing. The 51-year-old retired U.S. Army major lives off-base in Severn, Maryland, while availing herself of services at Fort Meade. While on active duty, she was stationed in Korea for almost four years before being sent to Fort Meade two years ago on medical leave.

Takesue finds that tying flies is good for building motor skills and concentration. It makes her flex her fingers. Her fishing skill has improved, too. “Every time we go out to fish, my goal is to catch one fish. I usually succeed,” she says.

“I enjoy our group’s meetings, held rain or shine, hot or cold. We get together with other groups from Fort Belvoir and Walter Reed. We go on outings to rivers and participate in regional tournaments,” Takesue says.

“Project Healing Waters is calming.”

For information about Project Healing Waters, visit its website at www.projecthealingwaters.org 
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