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Salem branch of Project Healing Waters teaches disabled veterans fly fishing

By flyfishing / January 13, 2017
Mike Doyle (blind) and Ken Misco (1)On Mike Doyle’s fly-fishing adventure, he snagged a couple of trees, waded into a swift, rising Roanoke River and swapped a few tall tales over barbecue. Not bad for a first-timer.Doyle, who is blind, is one of the latest recruits for the Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program hosted through Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
On Sunday, he and several other disabled veterans continued to learn the sport from volunteers with Trout Unlimited who served as guides on the river, and as fly-tying tutors beneath a pavilion at Roanoke County’s Green Hill Park.

“It’s good to have two guys who know what they’re doing standing there helping you fish,” Doyle said. He first heard of the program through a presentation at the blind veterans association about two years ago.

“It’s taken me until now to become actively involved,” he said. “It’s not about catching fish. It’s about camaraderie and fishing. Great, I’d like to catch a fish though.”

Doyle’s career in the Marines lasted 17 years, seven months and 27 days — not that he counts — and ended abruptly in June 1992 when his sight failed at the age of 35.

photo-3“The Navy told me it was hereditary blindness even though there isn’t any blindness in my family,” Doyle said. He suspects it might have been related to the Gulf War.

“It was tough. We had planned for a 20-year career and talked of extending it to 30 years when all of a sudden it got cut short,” he said.

“It was financially challenging along with the loss of my dignity and work ethic as a man.”

He entered the “poor me, pity me, why me phase. Denial, anger, frustration all kicked in. About a year after that I woke up and said this is ridiculous, grow up, be a man. You can’t change anything so go forward.”

Moving forward is part of healing, which the program seeks to promote. Bob Crawshaw, Virginia deputy regional coordinator for Project Healing Waters, tells stories of disabled veterans whose lives were changed by learning how to fish.

Kyle Chanitz among those successesHe counts Kyle Chanitz among those successes. The 29-year-old native New Yorker moved to Roanoke seven months ago specially for the Salem VA’s post-traumatic stress disorder program.

He joined the Army in 2006 and served three tours in Afghanistan that spanned 33 months and left him with brain injuries from two concussions.

Since his 2011 discharge, Chanitz said he’s had nine seizures and has struggled not to think about Afghanistan every waking moment.

“At the time I loved it, but you don’t know any better. I grew up over there, turned 21 over there. It’s all I kind of knew. You think about it so much every day, but when you’re fly fishing or fly tying you don’t think about anything else but fly fishing,” Chanitz said. “It’s nice to get your mind off everything.”

Chantiz attended his first fly tying lesson six weeks ago and went home that night and ordered a fly-tying kit.

He’s now caught a fish with his own fly, a satisfaction he can’t begin to express. Last week, he went on one of the program’s overnight trips to Back Creek near Hot Springs and caught 14 trout and five bluegills.

“This is probably the happiest I’ve been since the Army,” he said.

Fishing isn’t for everyone, Crawshaw said, but when veterans show sustained interest, the program outfits them with all the equipment needed to continue on their own.

Project Healing Waters works with veterans continuously to teach them how to tie flies and to guide them while fishing.

Most excursions are on private streams, but Sunday’s larger event was staged in a public park to lend the program exposure. The rain didn’t dampen that aim.

Project Healing Waters began a decade ago when Ed Nicholson, a retired Navy captain recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, noticed a soldier next to him who had lost an arm in Iraq go through a monotonous daily regimen of physical therapy, meals and meds.

As Crawshaw tells it, Nicholson asked permission to take the soldier fly fishing one weekend.

“The emotional rehabilitation was so dramatic that he was asked if he could take seven more the following weekend,” Crawshaw said.

The Salem project, among the first in the nation, began shortly after.

01Project Healing Waters, which aims to aid in the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans through fly fishing, now has 173 programs throughout the country with 2,400 volunteers, he said.

Equipment and trips are provided at no cost to participants. Crawshaw said participation in the Salem project fell for a few years, but is now enjoying a rejuvenation.

The veterans’ backgrounds vary. Bob Cox, who helped to start Salem’s PTSD clinic, is the Disabled American Veterans state adjutant. He saw a presentation about Healing Waters last year and decided to get involved a few months ago.

02“I started going to the DAV tying sessions. I just love it. I wish more people would get involved in it,” Cox said.

Sunday was his second fishing outing.

“It’s an art and a skill and it’s going to take time,” he said. “I had two different guides and I got good things from both of them. It’s about finding your niche.”

The most difficult part is finding the veterans, especially the younger ones, Crawshaw said.

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