Wounded vets find fishing can be healing
Tony Escalona’s head was “rattled,” he said, after he suffered several concussions during 31 years of U.S. Army service all over the world, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As he wound up treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, a counselor urged him to go upstairs and learn about fly fishing, a sport new to him. A volunteer from Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing took him fly fishing, and he was hooked.
Today, Escalona, 60, is the program lead for Project Healing Waters at McGuire. He teaches fly tying, rod building and fly casting. Twice a month, he takes groups of veterans on fishing trips to help them heal.
Military service, especially in combat zones, can leave lifelong physical and psychological scars. Many veterans, both disabled and not, come home troubled and find the transition to civilian life difficult.
Many of the Vietnam veterans Escalona sees are still dealing with the trauma of that war. “It does not go away,” he said.
The origins of fly fishing as a therapy for veterans go back to 2005 at Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, wounded veteran in-patients fished a pond on the property and found it to be therapeutic.
Shortly thereafter, the nonprofit Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc., was formed, establishing programs nationwide for service members and veterans with disabilities in Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units and Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and clinics. All services and equipment, including fishing trips, are free to eligible participants.
Fly fishing as therapy
Fly fishing provides sport, camaraderie and therapy. Out on a stream, veterans learn about insects, how to “read” the water, and how to find where fish hide.
For the latter lesson, Escalona uses a mnemonic trick — a strategy he learned in the Army when he struggled with memory challenges after several head injuries. Here’s his easy way to recall where fish can be found: “Foam is home. Rocks rock. Made in the shade. Wood is good.”
Fly fishing uses a lightweight, artificial lure, called a fly, which mimics a prey item. Anglers cast into a moving body of water with a specialized fishing rod, and the fly lands on the water’s surface rather than sinking.
While fishing has well-known calming effects, tying flies can clear one’s head, too. After a corporate career in manufacturing, Andy Cox, 81, retired in Richmond and teaches veterans fly tying and fishing for Project Healing Waters.
Cox learned the skill as a child from his uncle. He admitted tying flies can be daunting, especially for someone with a disability. But people can tie flies inside when the weather is bad and even while lying in a hospital bed, he noted. Creating an imitation bug or minnow has a rewarding creative aspect, too.
Cox has worked with active and retired military people who are “beat up,” blind in one eye or missing an arm, for example. For them in particular, tying is very calming.
“If they are uptight, tying a few flies washes things out,” he discovered.
About veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Cox said in his experience, “They don’t want to talk about it. They just want to go fishing.”
Concentration plus camaraderie
Out on moving water, like Madison County’s Rose River, you can “zone out,” Cox said. At different times, it can be restful, demanding and everything in between.
“Fly casting has a rhythm to it. It requires observation. It’s lyrical. That’s what I enjoy about it,” he said.
Why does he like to work with veterans? “Military people, they are a special group,” he said. “They paid their dues. I want to help them. Some are very grateful. That makes my day.”
Brian Trow, who runs Mossy Creek Fly Fishing and guide service in Harrisonburg, has volunteered with Project Healing Waters since 2006. He’s helped veterans with compromised limbs build fly rods and wade out into a stream on one leg.
Fly fishing is well suited for healing veterans, he maintained, because it requires concentration and coordination.
“It’s a sport of observation,” he explained, because anglers must look for riffles and rapids, and pay attention to temperatures and fish behavior. “It takes all of your mind to engage.”
At the same time, Trow said, “There’s no score in fly fishing. A good day is gauged individually, not by how many fish you caught or how big it was.
“The camaraderie is always there. You never age out.”
Veterans volunteer, too
Another veteran-centered nonprofit connects former military people with local community service projects. The Mission Continues (TMC) has more than 65 service groups (called “platoons”) across the country, enlisting 93,600 volunteers for more than 8,600 projects.
As TMC’s Richmond platoon leader, Jessica Hladky has regained the sense of purpose and team spirit she had in her 13-year Army career when she was deployed to Germany, Korea, Texas, New York and Iraq.
She loves bringing vets together to give them another way to serve their country again, especially in underserved communities.
“It is service for a cause higher than yourself,” she said.
In Richmond, they’ve staffed food drives and delivered food boxes. Her group also helped the Peter Paul Development Center create a community vegetable garden.
This year Hladky’s platoon members are taking up their shovels again to level the land in Evergreen Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground, in preparation for restoring it.
Bonding with other veterans “is almost like a little family,” Hladsky said. “Mission Continues has the same feel as when I was in a military unit — that family feel — and it gives me another opportunity to serve my country.”
As for Escalona, the fly fishing instructor, he also finds his volunteer work with veterans enriches his life.
“I’m passionate about fishing. I’m passionate about veterans,” he said. “I’ll do this as long as I can.”