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Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing helps veterans in recovery 

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click to enlarge Time spent on the river has proven therapeutic to many veterans. - COURTESY PROJECT HEALING WATERS FLY FISHING
  • Courtesy Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing
  • Time spent on the river has proven therapeutic to many veterans.

The physical and emotional impacts of combat and overseas deployments can have a lasting effect on military personnel, creating challenges in their family life, relationships and current and post-military careers. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) helps Colorado Springs' active duty disabled service members and disabled veterans work through these struggles, offering a unique approach to support through therapeutic fly fishing.

Project Healing Waters, headquartered in Maryland, has over 200 volunteer-run, donation-funded programs nationwide that provide qualified participants with an opportunity to build relationships and rehabilitate physically and emotionally. Brady Busby, a PHWFF participant who served in the Army as a chief warrant officer, credits the organization with saving his life when he was deeply hurting. Medically retired at age 38, he struggled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues related to his time in service. Through PHWFF, he found much-needed solace.

"I found myself coming back on the days I spent on the water," says Busby. "There is something about being in nature, the smells, the feeling of the rod in your hand and not having to think about anything but you and the fish."

Chris Benson, an Army veteran and local volunteer, agrees. "You cannot stand in the river and actively fly fish and think about anything else," he says.

Participants can be referred by their health care providers (military or VA) or must have a VA disability rating to qualify for the program. Benson notes that a rating can be as low as zero percent, also referred to as a non-compensable rating (a veteran's disability is service-connected, but determined not to be immediately limiting or requiring of compensation at the time of the rating).

PHWFF also offers participants a community — one that is understanding about the complexities of post-military and post-combat life. Monthly vet meetings, supportive speakers and classes on fly tying and rod building help maintain that community.

Volunteer and participant Michael Winton, a retired Air Force major, finds the camaraderie of PHWFF to be hugely beneficial. "I know I can go on a trip and not be judged poorly for the things that are wrong or different with me," he says. "The volunteers are extremely understanding of the difficulties participants may be experiencing, whether they are physical, emotional, mental or even spiritual."

PHWFF's Colorado Springs program runs about 45 trips a year and provides for every facet of the experience: food, accommodations, travel, rods, reels, instruction and mentorship. Program lead Kiley Battaglin (an Air Force veteran) makes a special point of providing good meals, often cooking them herself.

Despite the generous support of donors who provide access to fishing sites or other in-kind donations, the increasing participation — 600 percent growth in recent years — has stretched PHWFF's budget. It currently serves about 400 rotating participants, with veterans and active duty disabled personnel from as far back as the Korean War, up to ongoing conflicts.

Battaglin and Benson have worked to develop new ways to increase funding and awareness through opportunities like Give! to help more participants.

"This program has done so much for me," says Busby. "I would recommend it to any disabled veterans or injured active duty person.

Says Winton: "PHWFF is an outstanding program ... I encourage all those eligible to sign up and give it a try." Visit projecthealingwaters.org for more.

— Bridgett Harris

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