There are many variations of the saying “Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; Teach someone to fish and you feed them for life.” There is a program in Central Oregon teaching veterans how to fish, in the hope that it’s a step toward feeding their soul.
Veteran volunteers and participants take part in the veterans rehabilitation program called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.
“Really found the zen in tying flies and found the zen in fly fishing. Yeah, it’s been a really healthy outlet for me,” said Danny Leifer. He got involved because coming out of the Marines was tough for him.
“Was having a really rough transition back from the Marine Corps. Had a lot of combat experience and that transition back to civilian life was brutal on me,” said Danny. “Needed something for my mind to focus on.”
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Val Wadsworth runs Bend’s Project Healing Waters.
“What we can do is bring them out to be with other veterans who understand them and doing things that are not only fun but takes you out in nature. It’s kind of that zen of being along the river,” said Val.
Project Healing Waters is a national noprofit that started in 2005. With 200 chapters across the country, it offers free of charge, year-long lessons in fly casting, fly tying and fly rod building. Then, fishing trips like on the High Desert’s Fall River.
There’s a saying, there’s no such thing as a perfect cast. There are only casts that catch fish and casts that do not. With Project Healing Waters it’s all about getting these veterans down on the water casting, sometimes with flies they’ve tied themselves.
Which brings us to the Project Healing Waters fly tying class. Bruce Willhite is the instructor — once a Navy SEAL, now an avid fly fisherman with a “Band of Brothers” mentality.
“It’s kind of just giving back a little bit. But it’s just nice, that camaraderie you get that you don’t normally have in your civilian jobs. You can walk in the room and something will be some like experiences,” said Bruce.
Randy Miller, a marine who saw action in Operation Desert Storm, says it’s like being back in the fleet.
“Guys talk. We talk,” said Miller. “There’s not a lot of the barriers aren’t there that some people seem to experience. It’s just, a lot of times, non-existent. It doesn’t take long to talk about things that you don’t normally discuss.”
Val, who was once a participant in the program, says it can be essential therapy for veterans who struggle.
“Well if you think about the number of veterans we lose every year to suicide, a lot of that has to do with isolation. So if we can identify veterans who are isolated and that generally don’t want to be isolated, but they don’t necessarily feel comfortable coming out in the civilian population but you bring them together with other veterans, they’re very comfortable,” said Val.
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Bruce knows it, too.
“And then just to get with ‘em and just get that first tug and they go, ‘Oh, now I get it! Now I get it!’” he said.
But why tie flies? Why not just go to the fly shop and buy some?
“And the only reason I think we’re in here fly tying, if I’m being honest about that, is because it’s winter,” said Randy with a laugh.
Once these veterans have a couple flies they’ve tied themselves, the proof is out on the water with a fly rod in their hand and high hopes for healing.
“This is the closest thing I’ve experienced to ‘flow,’ I think, since combat,” said Danny.
The reason the program had to restart is because it essentially shut down because of covid-19 and volunteers moved on to other things. To get involved helping veterans as a volunteer or a participant, just click on this link.