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Fly fishing therapy heals recovering warriors wounds

"A bad jump" left Army veteran Joe Provens disabled with back injuries.

Ever since, Provens has experienced numbness, especially in his left side. He lost sensitivity in both hands.

"I tend to drop stuff," said Provens, 43.

Provens, who lives in Maxton, has found a therapy of sorts through fly fishing. The intricate work and concentration required to tie the lures helps with his motor skills.

And the experience of being with people of similar interests and backgrounds has helped Provens and other veterans improve their social skills.

Provens is one of more than a dozen veterans and active-duty military personnel in the Fayetteville chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.

The organization, which includes about 160 chapters in 48 states, is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of soldiers through the sport of fly fishing. It is offered in cooperation with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

"We focus on the fly casting skills, fly tying and the concentration part of it," said Tom Carpenter, an education specialist at John E. Pechmann Fishing Education Center near Lake Rim Park, where the group meets. "A lot of the guys are suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It really becomes a big help with that."

The national program was founded in 2005 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to help wounded service members returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The local group has been meeting at Pechmann Center for about a year and became officially recognized by the national organization last summer, Carpenter said. It spun off an existing program in Wilmington.

Members meet regularly to learn the finer points of fly fishing and to plan trips to use what they have learned. Recently, a fishing trip to Pennsylvania was in the works.

Fly fishing is a type of angling that uses light-weight, hand-tied "flies," or lures, to attract fish.

The technique uses a weighted line and requires a casting technique different from other types of fishing.

Healing Waters participants say fly fishing's unique qualities have helped them deal with their military service-related wounds.

Jimmy Lawler, 50, suffered a traumatic brain injury in the Army. He said the act of tying a fly helps with his hand-eye coordination.

And the act of fly fishing has another benefit, Lawler said. Instead of fishing from the bank of a river or lake, fly fishermen typically wade into the water.

So for Lawler, they truly are healing waters.

"Walking in the water is the biggest thing," Lawler said. "The water is really cold. It helps with your ortho-type injuries."

At a Healing Waters meeting last month, Lawler, who was leaning on a cane after recent hip replacement surgery, said he enjoys the camaraderie the group offers.

"It's great. It's other veterans," Lawler said. "You get everything from Vietnam to current-day vets. It's a good, mixed crowd."

Army veteran Katherine Carpenter, 67, said she is partially disabled from diabetes. She was the only woman in the room at the Healing Waters gathering.

Carpenter said she used to fly-fish with her father and welcomed the opportunity to revisit the sport. She said she does not mind being the only woman in the group.

"I don't consider myself male, female; I just consider myself one of the gang," Carpenter said. "They don't treat me any differently than they do each other. Twenty-five years in the military, you don't expect anything special."

Ray Drewry, 50, said he is disabled with back and leg problems. He also has suffered some memory loss.

Drewry, who lives in Red Springs, examined a casting rod he was working on while a guest speaker explained some of the fly fishing resources available on the Internet.

Drewry said he did not really have any hobbies before he retired from the military. He always thought of fishing as boring.

Fly fishing is different, Drewry said, because the fisherman is always active, continually casting his line in the water.

"It gives me something to do," Drewry said. "I fish more for the camaraderie than catching the fish. I just throw 'em back in."

Chris Tripoli is active-duty military and one of the founders of the local Healing Waters group.

At the March meeting, members presented Tripoli with a plaque honoring his work. It was Tripoli's last meeting with Fayetteville Healing Waters before he left on another deployment.

Tripoli said he has witnessed firsthand the therapeutic benefits of the simple act of tying a fishing lure.

"We've had some guys with severe traumatic brain injuries who have trouble thinking and talking clearly," Tripoli said. "It's amazing when you take them out and show them they can still do stuff. It's just focusing on one thing and taking everything step by step."

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