Big Two-Hearted River, Pt 3: Fly fishing heals veterans


Project Healing Waters is a non-profit group that has taken a page out of Ernest Hemingway’s book, helping wounded soldiers and veterans of the U.S. Army heal their physical and psychological scars through fly fishing. Hemingway’s short story Big Two-Hearted River – and early example of his Iceberg theory – portrays recurring character Nick Adams returning home traumatized from World War I and beginning to cope with his wartime experiences as he goes fly fishing in the wilderness of Seney, Michigan. As the author described the tale’s inception in A Moveable Feast: “When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it.” Needless to say, the story was autobiographical.

Since beginning in 2005 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) has done for hundreds or servicemen and servicewomen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan what the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company did for Lieutenant Dan after Vietnam. PHWFF was founded by Captain Ed Nicholson, a Navy veteran and fly fisher since 1982. However, the program is open to individuals who have never caught a fish before (not even this fish) – in fact, it provides ongoing, long-term basic fly fishing, fly casting, fly tying and rod building classes. Moreover, both military members with physical injuries – like Capt. David Folkerts, who suffered nerve damage in one hand from an improvised explosive device (IED) bomb blast – and psychological traumas – such as Capt. Kimberly Smith, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – can benefit from this activity.

“I didn’t even want to give it a try because my hand was still damaged due to the nerve damage from the shrapnel,” Folkerts told FoxNews about PHWFF. “I thought it would be too difficult, and I was worried about trying something new and not being good at it, and being further depressed about my situation.” But when “I caught my first brook trout, pulled this thing out of the water and I thought it was so beautiful, something just clicked in me.” Smith had a similar experience. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about fly fishing, but I’d like to learn because it’s got to be better than arts and crafts,’” she told the same news outlet. “Next thing you know, I’m sitting down and they had a vice in front of me, and all these guys knew what they were doing, and by the end of the night I had tied my first tie, which I’ve kept with me. It was just amazing; it felt like home.”

Project Healing Waters has expanded so far to 49 states, with a total of 173 programs run by volunteers and based at Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units, Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and clinics, or other locations. There are three requisites to establish a local program:

  1. A fly fishing club willing to provide the volunteers and organize the program.
  2. A DOD or VA medical facility willing to host the program.
  3. Injured military members or disabled veterans willing to participate.

Regarding that last point; unlike Nick Adams – who went fly fishing by himself – Project Healing Waters participants benefit as much from the activity itself as from the socializing, sharing, and bonding with other army members and veterans. All equipment and trips are provided to participants free of cost. However, this program does receive government funding. Therefore, the general public is welcome to donate their money, time, or both.