Fly fishermen help disabled veterans overcome trauma

By MORGAN SIMMONS | Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel | Published: September 30, 2013

WALLAND — Thirty yards upstream from where John Simon was wading was a small waterfall that washed food downstream to the hungry trout lurking within casting distance of his fly rod.

Simon, a young Army veteran from Corryton, was taking part in Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a program that uses fly fishing to help rehabilitate men and women who have been emotionally or physically disabled while in the military. His guide that rainy morning was Dusty Young. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they discussed the best strategy for fishing Hesse Creek, the private trout waters of Blackberry Farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

There were eight veterans fishing that day, and unlike most of them, Simon is an experienced fisherman.

“I like all kinds of fishing, but fly fishing is the best,” Simon said. “It’s all about the stream. You just can’t beat that sound.”

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing was started at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 2005. Today the volunteer-run organization serves approximately 4,000 recovering military personnel across the U.S.

The local program leader for Project Healing Waters is Steve Thompson, a small-business owner from Maynardville who started a Knoxville chapter last October with help from the Clinch River Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

“We give them that moment of peace,” Thompson said. “What they’ve given to us is so much more.”

The nine people (eight veterans and one spouse) who fished that day were accompanied by 10 guides — five from Blackberry Farm and five from the Clinch River Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Blackberry Farm supplied the guests with waders and fly rods. Before the group dispersed along the stream, Alex Quick, the resort’s director of fly fishing, offered a brief reflection on what he does for a living.

“I work all day as a guide, and when I want to relax, I choose to come here,” Quick said. “When you’re out in the stream today, dip your hand in the water and listen to the rain falling through the leaves. Take a few minutes between casts to notice the little things.”

One of the veterans fly fishing that morning was Chad Rogers, who served in the Army in Iraq before he was diagnosed with a life-threatening colon disease. This summer, Rogers underwent the last in a series of operations that rendered him so weak he couldn’t lift a gallon of milk. The doctors told him he might not survive, but here he was bringing in a 14-inch rainbow trout that he’d just hooked on a sinking fly called the Copper John.

“I think of the times with the mortar crew when we slept in a pit with our heads on each other’s ankles to keep our heads out of the mud,” Rogers said. “I don’t mind a mellow rain. This is infantry weather.”

Downstream of most of the group was Howard “Buck” Jenkins, a Vietnam combat veteran who was paired with 71-year-old Buzz Buffington, a member of Trout Unlimited who patiently instructed Jenkins on the art of casting in tight quarters.

“I’m not a veteran, but I lost two good friends in Vietnam,” Buffington said. “I can’t help these people find jobs or tell them how to invest their money, but I can help them fly fish. This is something I know how to do.”

Jenkins was discharged from the Army in 1971. For the next 35 years, he suffered anxiety, anger, depression — the classic symptoms of what now is recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. He said Project Healing Waters has given him the welcome home he never received.

“I’ve fed a few fish with worms a few times, but I never knew anything about fly fishing,” Jenkins said. “I never knew a place as beautiful as this existed.”