Vets Catch a Break with Healing Waters
By Laura Christman
By Laura Christman
Sometimes the way to go forward is to go fishing. Healing Waters Shasta County helps disabled military veterans by drawing on the therapeutic power of cold streamsand slippery fish. Henry Hernandez, 69, of Redding found a sense of calm and camaraderie through the Shasta Trinity Fly Fishers program. Fly fishing is a tremendous help with post traumatic stress, he says.
“You concentrate on what you are doing. It’s just you and the environment,” Hernandez says. “I can’t explain it. It kind of helps you put it behind you. It’s great therapy, but it’s also just a lot of fun.”
Hernandez did two tours of Vietnam in the U.S. Navy as a torpedo man on submarines. After so many submarine years, he found he mostly wanted to be alone. Healing Waters offered a way to get back into the stream of life. “I got tired of just sitting around … It gets me out in public,” he says.
Joe Sellman, 34, makes a two-hour drive from Hornbrook in Siskiyou County to attend Healing Waters meetings in Redding. He likes how veterans help other veterans. “You walk into the room and you don’t have to explain anything,” says Sellman, a Marine who served in the Invasion of Iraq and Battle of Fallujah.
Todd Cooper was at the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Redding two years ago when he heard about the program. “Someone just approached me and said, ‘You want to fish?’” he recalls.
Cooper, 58, of Redding served in the Navy from 1974 until a medical discharge in 1982. He has multiple sclerosis. Limited mobility makes fishing challenging, but Cooper comes away from Healing Waters sessions feeling accomplished. “I’ve learned so much,” he says. “I’ve learned to tie flies. I built a fish net … When I’m fishing, I don’t think about my troubles, my disabilities.”
The program is affiliated with the nonprofit Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which began at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 2005. There are 173 programs in 49 states. Healing Waters Shasta County works with the staff of the veterans clinic in Redding. The goal is emotional and physical rehabilitation for veterans with a disability, and the disability is often post traumatic stress disorder.
Fly fishing is therapeutic because it takes place in peaceful places with streams, conifers and mountain air. But there’s more at play than a beautiful setting, says Ron Saiki, a Vietnam War veteran and fly fishing enthusiast who is program coordinator. The sport is built around tricking trout, and there’s a lot that goes into that, he notes. Participants learn to read the water, which flies to use and how to cast so a fake fly lands in a realistic way.
“It is an art and science. You don’t just go out there and throw worms and sit down,” Saiki says. “You are thinking about it – how to mimic what the fish would eat.” A big part of the healing is making connections with other veterans, says Richard Martin, program lead and a Vietnam veteran. When Shasta Trinity Fly Fishers started the program two and a half years ago, participants sat apart from each other at meetings and no one said much, Martin recalls.
“Now you can’t shut them up,” he says with a grin. There’s good-natured banter (“Did you use the fishstretcher software on that photo?” a veteran asks) as well as serious conversation.
“They still like to talk about their military days. They have lots of stories to tell each other,” Saiki says. The year-round program has 32 participants and meets weekly with monthly fishing trips. Gear is provided. Participants don’t pay for clinics, classes or excursions. The program receives discounts and donations from merchants, lodges, guides and manufacturers. Private donations also help cover expenses.
Part of the power of Healing Waters is being an ongoing program, not just treating veterans to a day of fishing, Saiki notes. He sees participants change – come out of their shells – over time.
That’s rewarding, he says. The best part of being a volunteer with the program, Saiki says, is “giving back to the guys who gave so much.”