The weekend of November 4th brought a pretty heavy frost to the Salmon River near Altmar, NY. It also brought over a dozen combat veterans from the Ft. Drum Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, and at least that many local fishermen to serve as guide/mentors.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a national organization that is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing, fly tying education and outings.
Friday evening was check-in at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Officer School barracks just outside of Pulaski. Bob Rock, a long-time supporter of Project Healing Waters and master fly tier/instructor, arrived early, took a seat at the head of the table in the lounge area, set up his vise and tying materials and started warming up on a wooly bugger pattern.
As soldiers and volunteers arrived, they took seats, one-by-one around the table– some behind donated vises, some behind their own– and began working on goo-bug, egg-sucking leech and woolly bugger patterns of their own for tomorrow’s excursion. Many of the men in this group carried the scars and continued pain of physical injuries from the war–gunshot and shrapnel wounds, broken bones, burns, traumatic brain injury (TBI). Some wrestling with PTSD as well. That said, you would be hard-pressed to tell that any of them had any issues at all. The art of camouflage conceals so much more than any of us understands. It’s a matter of self-preservation.
After a while, announcements and house-rules were covered, BBQ was served and everyone started to warm to each other and the prospect of hooking up with the largest (for some the first) fish they’d ever caught.
The next morning came quickly and after an even quicker breakfast of coffee and donuts, the group caravanned to an undisclosed rally-point to gear up, pair up with a guide and get in the water. Thanks to the tremendous leadership of the Ft. Drum Chapter of Healing Waters and the good folks at the DEC, these men had an entire section of unpressured and absolutely prime water to themselves. A small gesture of thanks for their service and sacrifice, and a great opportunity to have success on a river that is notorious for tough fish and Black Friday-esque lines on the shore.
But that success is bigger that just catching fish. For some it’s the success of making it through 2 cold days of difficult wading and fishing in spite of the pain and limitations of physical injuries. For some it’s finding a peace and sense of calm that allows them to relax and laugh from the gut and feel like things are OK. Life is OK. Being home is OK. Even if that feeling is only for a short time. While it will definitely take a lot more than just fly fishing, in the end, the hope and mission of PHW is that if enough of these quality days are strung together, it will help these heroes make their way back from those dark haunts that frustrate and scare the shit out of them–to help them finally make their way home for good.
Now, I’ve heard stories and seen pictures of other Healing Waters events in other parts of the country. But I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t another chapter that has experienced the number, species diversity and size of the fish that were caught by these guys–every single one of them–over our two days on the Salmon.
The weekend was a profound and humbling experience for me. It was an honor to be able to spend the time I did with the guys, to hear their stories, shake their hands and stand in the river together just like a bunch of normal fishermen chasing bent rods, lake-run monsters and grip-and-grins.
That is, if there is such a thing as a normal fisherman.
Be sure to “Like” the Ft. Drum Chapter’s facebook page and visit the national Healing Waters site as well. And if you can get involved in a chapter near you, please do. Our soldiers need our support right here at home.
Photo credits: Grant Taylor