Project Healing Waters brings veterans and students together

For veterans with disabilities, fly-fishing has often served as an effective form of physical and emotional rehabilitation.  Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that promotes fly fishing and fly tying as a form of therapy for veterans. In addition, they organize trips for veterans and volunteers to fly fish together.

On September 19, Gracie Baldwin ’16, who was first introduced to fly fishing through a Jan Plan course, helped organize a fly fishing trip with Project Healing Waters for 24 people. The trip included three faculty members, nine students, and a number of local Maine volunteers and disabled veterans.

Fishing out of the Evergreen Campgrounds in Solon, ME, Baldwin said that the day-long excursion was aimed at helping veterans cope with the after-effects of the wars in which they fought. “None of the veterans [on this trip] were physically disabled, but all of them had [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] or [Traumatic Brain Injury]….These veterans have to suffer from these kinds of things as a result of serving their country, so having something like fly fishing—which is a very meditative, therapeutic activity—is great,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin explained how she first got involved with the organization: “I think I was attracted to it because of my interest in medicine but also my interest in medicine from the perspective of helping people with a human health issue without the use of medicine or expensive therapy.”

“Especially when you think about the cost of health care, when you talk to these guys or people who have volunteered here for a long time, [you’ll realize that] people will have gone to tons of therapy sessions, they’ll see therapists, they’ll take medicine, and nothing will get better. They’ll go out for a day of fly-fishing and everything in their life has changed,” she added.

On this particular trip, Baldwin said there was one veteran who was nearly blind. He still continues to fly fish regularly, which  helps him with his impairments as it forces him to be aware of all his senses. 

Jack Burton ’17, who also volunteered on the trip, witnessed the veteran’s fishing prowess despite his impairments. “One moment that really stuck out [to me] was when I watched a veteran wade out into fast moving water….He began throwing the most perfect casts I had ever seen. When he walked to the river bank he grabbed his white stick and began walking upriver to a new spot. He was blind. [Another veteran] jokingly told me not to go near him unless I wanted to get hooked…. I think in the end I was the student both on the river and off,” Burton recalled.

Aside from facilitating this experience for veterans, student volunteers also learned about the experience of going to war. “I learned…that most of the veterans were Vietnam vets, and I think that our generation—because we’ve never had a war that was drafted—we don’t really understand what that’s like. I learned about that,” Baldwin said.

“Basically, all of these guys were drafted—some of them enlisted but probably because they just assumed they’d get drafted—so they didn’t necessarily want to be there. Because the Vietnam War was such a hot issue, when they got back, multiple people told me they got spit on, got yelled at, and got called ‘baby killers,’” Baldwin added.

Because so many people were anti-Vietnam War at the time, the veterans were not honored when they returned home. On the fishing trip, many veterans talked about how the idea of honoring those who have served is relatively new. “When they came back…most of them were not honored for their service. That’s just something I went into not knowing at all. I wasn’t like, ‘I want to do this because I want to honor the Vietnam [veterans] because they didn’t get honored when they came back. But it was a cool aftereffect. They were just so grateful to me for organizing it,” Baldwin said.

Burton added that he exchanged numbers with one of the veterans, and they are planning on going fishing in October. 12010786_10201064619493717_8787435999585517251_o