Healing Waters

A group of volunteers are dedicated to assisting wounded war veterans, all with the help of a rod and a reel.

The water was calm, the sun was shining and the temperature was perfect when I arrived at the Moseley home of Greg Russell—a volunteer with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF)—for my first fly-fishing experience a couple of weeks ago. But I was wearing the wrong sunglasses. “You need polarized lenses,” one of the PHWFF volunteers told me. He handed me his pair to try out while I made a mental note to correct my eyewear (black rhinestone sunglasses just don’t cut it for fly fishing).

This is how my morning started out with the PHWFF volunteers—a selfless group of men who had come out for a morning of fishing with wounded veterans in the bright blue water of Swift Creek Reservoir. PHWFF got started in 2005 at Walter Reed Medical Center in coordination with the Wounded Warrior Project and has since established 103 programs throughout the U.S. Their mission is to use fly-fishing to help in the physical and mental healing of severely wounded soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan (they are supported by Fly Fishers of Virginia based in Richmond). This past year, the PHWFF had over 3,000 wounded warriors participating in their fly-fishing, fly tying and fly-casting sessions.

The PHWFF organization is volunteer-based, as there are only five full time employees on the national level and over 2,000 volunteers nationwide. Many of the volunteers I met at Greg Russell’s house became volunteers after either they served or a member of their family served in the armed forces. Jeff Stephenson, another volunteer, kept me company before the event began (I tried to stay clear of the fishing rod and boat preparations as I would have probably done more harm than good). Stephenson became involved with the program after he realized what a positive impact it had on the soldiers who were affected mentally by the war, which he experienced first-hand when his son returned from active duty with posttraumatic stress disorder. He felt this issue was overlooked by a lot of rehabilitation programs, and was relieved to hear that the Healing Waters programs addressed the warriors’ physical and mental rehabilitation needs.

That aspect of the program is something important to all the volunteers, including Regional Coordinator Phil Johnson, who described his own job with the program as “the vaudeville act where the man has to keep all the plates spinning at once.” He said this with a smile and a laugh, as the other volunteers chimed in saying how good he really is at his “plate-spinning” act. Johnson’s responsibilities as the Regional Coordinator of Virginia and West Virginia include everything from organizing local fly fishing trips like the one at Russell’s house to arranging longer out-of-state trips for smaller groups of Warriors, all while coordinating transportation and equipment for everyone. But even with his (spinning) plate full, he secured $24,500 worth of grants from the Guilford Foundation over the past two years to fund fly-fishing events. He stressed that the importance of these trips wasn’t just for physical rehabilitation, but also for forming a “mentor-type relationship” with the warriors and giving them a way to get their mind off of everything but the beautiful surroundings and camaraderie with others who had been through similar experiences.

But the focus of the morning was on the wounded veterans who had come to enjoy some fishing. Lawrence Easter, a native of Alberta, Virginia and a retired Army veteran, stood quietly on the dock as the volunteers showed him the right way to put the lure on the rod and cast out his line. It was his fifth fly-fishing trip with the program, and the only thing on his mind beside the scenery was how hungry the fish were. “I get impatient when they don’t bite,” he said, while he waited for a tug on his line. He didn’t seem to mind too much, though. I got the feeling that being on the lake with his fellow warriors and volunteers made the waiting a lot easier.

Earlier in the day Russell told me, “If we can help one person today then I’ll be happy.”

It was his first time hosting the fishing event, and he spent most of it making sure each fishing rod was reeled, every boat was prepared and everyone’s lunch was in order. But he got his wish because by the end of the day, all of the warriors had caught several fish apiece.

When I left the lake, some of the warriors and volunteers were out on boats, others were fishing on the dock and a few were standing around talking. Even so, it was hard to ignore the sense of community and togetherness this group had with one another. ProjectHealingWaters.org  

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