One of Those Days
The damp wind blows a worn flag tied to a tree branch with fishing line, its red white and blue contrasting with the earthy hues of the forest surrounding the Salmon River.
Anglers turn to their nation’s colors, a fishing rod in one hand and the other over their hearts. Hats that proudly declare “Vietnam Veteran” are removed as the Pledge of Allegiance is recited into the cold, early morning air.
“The peace and tranquility of the water can be hypnotic,” said Ed Veaudry, regional coordinator for the northern New York region of Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit program that pairs disabled veterans with experienced fly-fishing guides to provide therapy and emotional support in an outdoor setting.
Project Healing Waters started at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005 and has since expanded nationwide, serving more than 8,400 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in 2017. Its 216 chapters host fly-tying, rod building and fishing outings throughout the year to provide physical and emotional therapy that goes beyond the walls of a medical institution.
“Most vets lose their identity when they get out [of the service] and get lost. Some find drugs, some find the end of a rope, but fly-fishing provides an environment that is addictive but holistically healthy for the body and mind,” said U.S. Marine Corps veteran Andrew Summa, who is now a health coach at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Syracuse. Summa served as an air crewman in Afghanistan where several of his fellow crew members died in a helicopter crash.
Summa’s bright orange beard matches the orange of his fishing line as he practices casting during the much anticipated yearly Salmon River outing. Rain begins to pour on the participants, but smiles refuse to fade.
Up and down the river, volunteer guides teach participants the intricacies of fly-fishing. Long, thin lines whistle and whip through the air as first-timers slowly become comfortable with the motion required to cast the fly in a way that lures the steelhead and salmon.
The only sound surrounding the fishermen and women is the rushing water rolling over rocks and the raindrops plopping on their hats. Veterans who normally don’t speak openly about their experiences begin to open up, and by the end of the day, their laughter mixes with the sounds of nature.
Veterans from various eras come together to learn from one another at Project Healing Waters. Veaudry believes the program creates a sense of belonging many service members miss after leaving the military by embracing an alternative healing method.
“I find others with similar issues I can relate to and talk freely with, without having to worry about ridicule or being stigmatized,” said Veaudry. “I believe the relationships we establish with one another allow us to have new friends for life friends we can count on, friends we can talk to, friends we can fish with.”