It is amazing, but true, that great events and organizations are created by an individual’s will.
Right now many of you are gearing up for the fishing season; digging out your waders and boots, assessing your gear, and checking your calendars. For generations, fishing has been an experience associated with family and friendship, storytelling, laughter, adventure, and peace.
Just as you are gearing up for the season, volunteers at Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing are getting excited too. This group of local military veterans proudly and willingly share their knowledge, experience, and love of fly fishing to help other veterans heal. Participants learn to tie flies, build fly rods, and plan fishing trips. While learning, they share tales about the ones that got away and build camaraderie and relationships that can save lives.
Healing Those Who Serve
Ed Nicholson’s inspiration for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing came in 2005, with his own stay in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At that time, he was presented with a close look at the wounded returning from the conflict in Iraq (and later Afghanistan). A desire to offer fly fishing to recovering injured and wounded service members who were interested in joining him on outings blossomed into a project that now encompasses not only the recovering warriors of Walter Reed, but other disabled veterans in-need, at over 200 programs serving all 50 states, and our military in Germany.
In 2008, while on a short break from the desert and sandstorms, Air Force Tech Sergeant, Mike Henrie fly fished for the first time ever in ponds at Saddam Hussein’s former palace in Baghdad. According to Henrie, “That short diversion in Baghdad was a necessary break and a huge spiritual lift for me.”
A few years later, Henrie read a Reader’s Digest article about PHWFF; he was interested and wanted to join.
After finding no information for our area, he called Nicholson, who informed him that there was no program in Alaska.
Henrie decided that Alaska, with over 67,000 veterans (the highest percentage per capita in the United States) and world-renowned fishing, was the perfect place for PHWFF, so he began the process of forming the Anchorage, Alaska location. In January 2010, he attended the Alaska Flyfishers Fly Tying Clinic and met Damond Blankenship. Blankenship, a Vietnam War veteran, offered his support, fly tying instruction, and contact with other military veterans who were experienced fly fishermen. With that, the Alaska PHWFF program was off to a great start.
Henrie is quick to recognize those who helped get the program started, “Damond, Mike Malone, Mike Harsh, Frank Stevens, Dave Rooker, Jan Schnorr, Stan Bissonette, Monty Williams, and other experienced fly fishing military veterans were so helpful from the very beginning of this great program in Alaska.”
When asked why he has served the program for the past decade, volunteer Mike Harsh proudly states, “PHW provides a way for me to give back to military veterans and share my knowledge and love of tying flies and fly fishing. Indeed, we believe that we are helping those who have served to heal.”
In 2013, a second group began to meet in Wasilla as a satellite of the Anchorage location.
Wasilla established itself as an independently in 2018 and is currently lead by Gary Eichhorn, a retired U.S. Army CWO3. The Wasilla location continues to grow, as Eichhorn and his team of volunteers, Dale Aki, Dwayne McHenry, Todd Green, Rick Knight, Tony Rajek, Bob Wrentmore, Bob Bechtold, Rick Fentonare, and others, are dedicated to their mission.
Wasilla volunteer, Todd Green, an 11-year U.S. Army infantry combat veteran, stated point blank, “Project Healing Waters saved my life.” Green served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and is an extremely proud recipient of the Combat Infantry Badge.
After a compassionate reassignment back to Alaska in 2010, and then to the Warrior Transition Unit, Green was transitioning out of the military, when he was introduced to PHWFF and became intensely focused on improving his fly tying and fishing skills. “It was a saving grace to have this program, as I was medically retired out of the military and needed to separate past experiences from my present situation.”
It’s interesting to hear the fly tying, casting and fishing instruction, but the weekly bantering from all branches of service is even better.
They bond over gentle jabs that really just go to show concern and care for one another.
Volunteers want to share their good experiences, skills, and knowledge with other veterans and service members as they transition from military to civilian life. They describe it as therapeutic for themselves as well as for participants. But, mostly, they tell the story about the big one that got away, they smile and laugh, and show up for each other next week.
For more information about how to participate or volunteer with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing in Alaska, visit projecthealingwaters.org
Local groups meet weekly year round.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Wasilla:
Tuesdays, at 1700 hours
Wasilla Veterans Center
851 Westpoint Dr # 111, Wasilla
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Anchorage:
Thursdays, at 1730 hours
William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery
941 N Reeve Blvd, Anchorage