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A Journey Back to Calmer Waters
Project Healing Waters

October 2015
Project Healing Waters, an international non-profit with a group at Ft. Meade, utilizes fly fishing as a way for veterans to bond and relax.

Project Healing Waters, an international non-profit with a group at Ft. Meade, utilizes fly fishing as a way for veterans to bond and relax.

“Project Healing Waters may not have saved my life, but it sure saved my sanity.” This is how Valerie Takeslle summed up her experience with Project Healing Waters. Takeslle, a retired Major in the U. S. Army, first got involved with the group in 2011. She had recently returned from a hospital stay in Korea and found herself dealing with a lot of anger. Takeslle had retreated within herself to a point where she had eliminated almost all of her interaction with others. There were a couple of fellow soldiers who gently but repeatedly encouraged her to visit the group that meets at Ft. Meade. She met the founder of the Ft. Meade group, Larry Vawter and a volunteer named Patti Nickelson, who taught her to tie her first fly. That led to learning to fly fish and slowly becoming more comfortable with a variety of social activities. Today, Takeslle is active with guitar lessons, painting, golfing and, of course, fly fishing. She is still active with the group, now as a volunteer involving yet another of her passions, cooking. Val has mostly taken over responsibility for the weekly dinners provided at the group get-togethers.

Project Healing Waters (PHW) was started in 2005 by Ed Nicholson, a retired Navy Captain and Vietnam Veteran. Nicholson was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda where he found a large number of men and women who were being treated for injuries sustained during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. These injuries included life-altering disabilities like traumatic brain injury, lost limbs and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nicholson saw an opportunity to combine his passion for fly fishing with the opportunity to help. What started as simply taking recovering soldiers for a day of fishing to get out of the hospital has become what PHW is today.

PHW can now be found in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Australia and Canada. Most recently, an affiliate chapter has been established in Germany. The program has expanded in depth as well as geography. In addition to fishing trips, it now includes fly casting, fly tying and rodbuilding. All skill levels are welcome.

While the focus of PHW may be fly fishing, its purpose is to provide an environment where soldiers can relax and heal on their own terms.Unlike many of the formal programs offered by the service, PHW is strictly voluntary. Participants can show up when they feel like it and participate as much or as little as they want. Often, a soldier new to the group will stand off until they feel more comfortable and recognize that they are in a safe environment with people they can trust.

Sergeant Major Steve Graves was injured in 2010 in Afghanistan when he sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury. “Upon my return I was being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and then on to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. Once back in the U.S., I was thrilled to once again be well enough, or so I thought, to begin fly fishing again, a passion I adored for over 18 years. When I finally got into the water, I was immersed in the environment that I knew so well, quiet and serene, until the peaceful relaxation was broken by thoughts and images I had long suppressed,” he recalls. “I became very uncomfortable, very unsure. This was no longer my sanctuary; it was a gateway to feelings and thoughts that I had locked away tightly. I began to lose control, making it far too aggravating and dangerous to be in the water, so I gave up and quit fishing.”

Sergeant Major Graves recalls that the issues he was facing were not solely physical. “I struggled badly with anxiety and anger as well as balance issues, vision problems, my hand eye coordination was diminishing, and my speech skills were becoming poor. I finally gave in and told a counselor about why I was so bitter. He searched around and found the PHW chapter on Ft. Meade.” It was there that he was able to return to his love of fly fishing and reconnect with other veterans.

Project Healing Waters helps veterans learn casting techniques for fly fishing.

Project Healing Waters helps veterans learn casting techniques for fly fishing.

After retiring and moving to Massachusetts last year, Sergeant MajorGraves quickly found a PHW chapter close to home where he could fly fish and talk to other veterans who had similar experiences as he had. In May, he took a job in Germany.

“By this time I had gone on four trips to the river by myself with little to no trouble, and I credit it to my PHW group and the support I received from friends. I was allowed to become a coach as well as a member of the Montachussett chapter, and I will always be thankful to Bill Manser and Larry Vawter in Maryland for allowing me that chance to teach casting and tying. It helped me develop the drive to do what I did next,” he says. His goal was to establish a PHW chapter in Germany.

The experience Sergeant Major Graves had had with the organization has left quite an impact.

Valerie Takeslle, a retired Major in the U.S. Army, catches a crappie.

Valerie Takeslle, a retired Major in the U.S. Army, catches a crappie.

“I recovered from most of my injuries both physical and non-physical,”he says. “I still struggle a little from time to time as we all do. I vowed to make sure I value life beyond anything else and overall pass that sentiment on to others, my kids, grandkids and strangers. I found my calling in the form of serving veterans and volunteers – these are the folks that I want to share life with because they gave to me once,” he says.

Most of our veterans have not suffered physical or psychological harm, but they and their families have all made sacrifices to provide the safety we all too frequently take for granted. Supporting ourveterans is not a political statement …it’s a simple “thank you.” There are a many different programs that help veterans and their families. I encourage you to find your own way to say thanks. I95