West Virginia fishing program helps disabled vets

Huntington, W.Va. (AP) – Ron Curry is amazed at the changes a spool of thread and a few colorful feathers have made in his life.

Curry, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, is one of many Huntington-area veterans whose lives have been changed by Project Healing Waters, an initiative that gets disabled vets involved in the many facets of fly fishing.

"It has really helped me to function in life,'' Curry said. "I had been going to the vet center, getting counseling for PTSD and trying to learn coping skills, but I still used to `isolate' too much.

"Then Project Healing Waters got me started in fly fishing. It's given me a new lease on life. I'm not as isolated, and I'm able to enjoy myself a lot more.''

Brent Sturm, recreational therapist at Huntington's Veterans Administration Hospital, said the program is making a difference in the lives of dozens of local veterans.

"I'd conservatively estimate that in the last year and a half, 75 to 80 vets have come through the program's fly-fishing, fly-tying and rod-building classes,'' Sturm said. "We're getting men and women involved who have all sorts of disabilities — lost limbs, traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. The classes and fishing trips are giving these folks something to look forward to.''

The program got started in June 2011 when Bob White, a veteran who had helped with a Charleston-based Project Healing Waters effort, decided to get a similar program started in Huntington.

"I approached the folks at the VA Hospital, and they thought it was a good idea. They got me in touch with Brent, who was in the process of starting a recreation program,'' White recalled.

Sturm liked what White told him.

"Bob said Project Healing Waters would provide the instructors and the gear,'' Sturm said. "That sounded great to me. We got the word out, and it snowballed from there.''

The first class taught the vets how to cast a fly rod. Other classes soon followed — fly tying, rod building, leader tying and lanyard making. From time to time, class participants took fishing trips to put their newly found skills to use.

"The great thing about the program is that there is no cost to the vets,'' White said. "Everything is supplied, from the fly-tying materials to the rods and reels and lines.''

Founded in 2005 at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center to provide recreation for wounded soldiers, Project Healing Waters has since grown into a nationwide nonprofit organization.

White said funding comes from corporate sponsors, charitable foundations, government grants, and donations from the public.

"Our budget in our first year here in Huntington was about $2,000. Last year it was $4,000, and this year it's $5,000,'' he said. "We're always open to donations. If anyone wants to, they can call me at 304-757-4967.''

In little more than a year and a half, the Huntington Project Healing Waters group has become the most active in the parent organization's Virginia-West Virginia region.

"Word has gotten out about the success we've had here,'' Sturm said. "Now I get phone calls from other recreational therapists asking how to build programs where they are.''

The group meets every Tuesday and Thursday in Huntington's VA Hospital recreation hall.

"We have everything on hand that we need,'' White said. "We have fly-tying vises and materials, rod-building kits and rods to practice casting with. The VA provides us with the building, and with transportation for our outings. We plan to do a lot of fishing this year – one to two trips a month.''

Some of the trips are to local bass ponds, but others are to trout streams located in the West Virginia and Virginia mountains.

"Some of our most active participants get chosen for regional outings, where they travel to really nice trout streams and go fishing with vets from other programs,'' White explained. "Everything is provided to them – food, lodging, transportation, rod, reel, vest, waders, raincoat and flies. So far we've sent nine vets to regional events, and one to a national event in Yellowstone.''

Chuck Holley, who had participated in every Project Healing Waters class and event since the Huntington program got started, received the Yellowstone trip after being named regional "participant of the year.''

"It was fantastic,'' Holley said. "The trip of a lifetime. This whole experience has meant quite a bit to me. There's a lot of great camaraderie. "I can't wait until the nights we meet. We talk about the things we're going to do, places we're going to fish. We don't talk about things that happened to us 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. We drink coffee, talk about fishing and focus on the future.''

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