Since the fall of 2010, disabled military service personnel and veterans have been coming to Summit and Grand counties to spend a few days wading through crystal-clear rivers and learning the art of fly-fishing. Through Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a nationwide nonprofit organization, they are paired with local guides and instructors not only to learn a new sport, but to benefit from being outdoors and connecting with the landscape.
“We have some of the best water in the U.S., … so it was just a natural (fit),” said Mike Oros, who helped bring the program to the area, along with Larry Lunceford, Jerry Middel, Mark Heminghous and Trout Unlimited’s Gore Range chapter. With the help of a number of local volunteers, the group has sponsored 13 fishing outings for about 190 veterans and military members from around the country.
“Just like all of us use a good day of recreation as time to download and recharge, once they get hooked into it, they know they have to keep fishing,” Oros said.
Healing through nature
Jim Buckler, who owns Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne, has volunteered for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing for the past several years.
“I was never in the military or anything like that, but I tell you, it absolutely grabbed my heart,” he said.
One memory in particular, from last spring stood out in his mind. He was paired up with a soldier who remained relatively quiet throughout the morning, until the fishing picked up later in the day.
“The first fish he caught, it was just like an epiphany. It was this huge rainbow (trout), just beautiful colors,” said Buckler. “When he released that fish after he caught it, it was (like) something just came over him.”
It wasn’t until later that Buckler learned the soldier’s background — that he had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning with some physical disabilities as well as post-traumatic stress disorder; that his wife had called in just a few days ago, saying he had stopped speaking and was only able to utter a few syllables at a time; and that he had joined the program at the last minute in hopes it would help him. Then, Buckler learned from the program lead that, after his day of fishing, the soldier had talked for 30 minutes nonstop.
“(I get) those stories over and over. They all take a little bit different form, but just getting in the water and being in that environment, catching fish and letting them go, it’s an amazing experience,” Buckler said.
Frank Ortega, of Colorado Springs, can attest to that experience firsthand. Ortega served 20 years as an Army flight medic and spend time in El Salvador and Honduras in the early 1990s. Then in 2000, he was medically discharged with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. A chance encounter with a fellow veteran at a Denver Broncos game introduced him to Project Healing.
“It’s been great for me. I mean, it’s a lifesaver,” Ortega said. “I have tried numerous projects numerous therapies … and none of it really worked until I got involved with Project Healing Waters.”
Ortega grew up hunting and fishing in southern Colorado, though he hadn’t done much fly-fishing before. And after his discharge, he didn’t do much at all.
“I didn’t really want to do anything, you know? I just wanted to stay home,” he said. Now, he’s eager to get out fishing whenever he can. He’s started volunteering with Project Healing and wants to get his wife and son involved in fly-fishing as well.
Fly-Fishing Film Tour
This week, the fly shops of Summit County and the town of Silverthorne aligned to host the Fly Fishing Film Tour (F3T) April 17 at the Silverthorne Pavilion.
The F3T features short films related to the world of fly-fishing, from stories about river guides from around the world to a group of sportsmen’s quest for brook trout and landlocked salmon in Labrador’s rugged northern wilderness.
Proceeds from ticket sales, the silent auction and donations will directly benefit Project Healing.
“Basically, it’s my thought that public service is a wonderful thing,” said Oros. “Fishing with these individuals has produced some of the best days I’ve ever had fishing in my whole life. Fishing with these individuals is unlike anything else. To share in that camaraderie, it’s just an added bonus. It’s amazing.”
And, according to Ortega, the experience is just as rewarding for the participants as it is for the volunteers.
“It’s the chance to get out on the rivers or lakes and actually fish, and not have to worry about my diagnosis and what I went through,” he said. “Just again, the ability to get back to Mother Nature and not have a care in the world.”