Last May my wife Jan and I were camping at the Indian Hollow Campground along the East Branch of the Westfield River in Chesterfield.
The Massachusetts/Rhode Island Council of Trout Unlimited (TU) rented the camping area for the weekend and delegates from both state's TU chapters were there to conduct business and do a little fly fishing.
Next to our campsite was a sizeable group of men. I commented to Jan that we wouldn't get much sleep that night with that many guys there probably partying all night. I knew the group leader, Bill Manser, from Royalston, a TU member, and inquired about the group. He explained the group was made up of veterans and mentors participating in a therapeutic fishing trip as part Project Healing Waters.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. (not to be confused with Wounded Warriors) is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities, including education and outings.
The Montachusett Veterans Outreach Center (MVOC) in Gardner joined the program and runs its group at its Stallings campus in Winchendon, where they meet bi-weekly. The idea behind Healing Waters is simple — to provide a therapeutic and fun outlet for physically or mentally disabled vets by teaching them the basics of fly fishing, casting, tying, and rod building, and then going out on fishing trips to ideal spots such as the Indian Hollow Campground.
Nationwide, Healing Waters raises its own money with a budget of close to $3 million and administrative costs are kept low, in the 15 percent range, reserving as much as possible to fund trips and provide gear for the vets who take part.
The entire program is completely free to the veterans. In addition to funding from Healing Waters, the MVOC group is sponsored by the non-profits TU and the New England Fly Tyers.
The group is open to any veteran who has a disability, whether physical or mental.
"95 percent of what we have here is post-traumatic stress," said Manser. With that in mind, MVOC counselor Michael Young is the therapeutic support for the group, joining Manser and the volunteer mentors who bring a variety of outdoor skills to the group, some of them being vets themselves.
Later that day, I saw them out fly fishing in the river, each with his mentor, and each doing a good job of fly casting.
Jan and I had no problem with the vets that night. There were no drugs or alcohol at their campsite. During the middle of the night, I saw a small campfire still ablaze, but there was no noise. Some guys were standing around it talking low with their mentors or with one another.
Although they brought their own food, the TU Council invited them to its own picnic so that they could co-mingle. It was at that time that I had a chance to talk to a few of them. There were veterans from Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
One veteran, Mike Bousquet, really got involved with the group and recently received its Participant of the Year award for New England from Deputy Regional Coordinator Richard Diamond. Nominated for the award by Manser, Bousquet heard about the program while living at Hero Homestead in Leominster, a transitional housing facility for veterans run by the nonprofit Veteran Homestead.
He had been an avid angler throughout his life and recalled that after his first meeting spent tying a fly, he went out with the group that weekend and was successful in catching fish.
"Fishing is a pastime to me, something that I can stay calm with even when I'm not with the group. I enjoy many, many things about it — the serenity about the environment and where you are. It's been a blessing."
Said Manser: "He started as a participant and has now worked up to be a mentor, so it's an accomplishment."
John Sherwin, an Iraq vet, said that Manser has saved his life.
"He helped restore some hope," Sherwin said. "Sometimes the right person being there makes all of the difference... someone who is interested."
The mentors are dedicated, skilled and passionate in what they do. According to Manser, some mentors travel great distances to attend the meetings. Also, there would be no work or volunteers were it not for the generous donations of gear and outfits.
I couldn't help but feel for the Vietnam veterans who are still struggling after nearly 50 years. I believe no one who returns from serving their country in war comes back the same. Some come back with physical scars, others with invisible ones. Some come back in coffins. Some turn to drugs or alcohol, get into trouble, end up homeless or in prison or take their own lives. They need help, understanding and compassion to get over the hurdles.
With funding available and the group thriving with the help of volunteer staff, Manser encourages more veterans to join so they can be helped. Veterans or volunteers interested in participating can reach Manser at (978) 895-5261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Its home website is projecthealingwaters.org and Facebook page is project healing waters — Winchendon. Donations are always happily and gratefully accepted.
So how does fly fishing help? Perhaps it is as fly fishing author Tom Meade wrote in his 1994 book entitled Essential Fly Fishing: "The rhythm of the rod carries your body, mind and spirit to the water. Whether you catch a fish or not, the water will always give you a little of its strength, some of its energy and much of its peace."
Questions/comments: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com. Phone: (413) 637-1818