Peter Brookes: Rods for recovery

Peter Brookes

Whether he actually said it or not, I couldn’t help but think of the quote attributed to British statesman Winston Churchill who reportedly once quipped: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

It came to mind because I was attending a Project Healing Waters — projecthealingwaters.com — event with a group of veterans and volunteers on the trout-choked South River in Waynesboro, Virginia.

I knew that today’s get together — sponsored by the Project Healing Waters-Shenandoah Valley — projecthealingwaters-shenvalley.org, Trout Unlimited’s Massanutten chapter — massanuttentu.com, and South River Fly Shop — southriverflyshop.com — would include wetting a fly line, but it was so much more.

It was about giving and healing.

Of course, that isn’t exactly what you think of when you slip on your waders bent on going one on one with a mythical trophy trout that is intent on getting a real meal and not a mouthful of some make-believe minnow you’re stripping through the water column.

For the disabled veterans at this Project Healing Waters event, who may suffer from physical and or emotional challenges — for example post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD — it’s an opportunity to learn to tie flies, improve their angling acumen or just hit the water for some fishing.

But it doesn’t end there.

I asked Bill, a lanky Vietnam-era army Green Beret who is the Shenandoah Valley Project Healing Waters chapter’s head honcho, the obvious question: Why fly fishing?

After taunting me endlessly about my being a “Navy guy” — OK, maybe I started the inter-service rivalry ribbing — he got serious for a moment.

Bill said it’s about that special bond that military folks have with one another … one that is built on the shared experiences of boot camp, danger, combat, and sometimes the loss of a brother or sister in arms.

In other words, Project Healing Waters programs are as much about casting a fly as it is about sharing camaraderie among veterans, often across generations, that can help ease the pain of the injuries you can — and can’t — see.

For instance, Bill told me a story of how he was once called by a veteran’s wife whose husband suffered PTSD. He’d come to some Project Healing Waters outings — which are free to the disabled veterans, by the way, thanks to generous sponsors and donors.

She surprisingly thanked Bill for saving her marriage. The distressed wife told him that Project Healing Waters had helped her husband break down the walls that PTSD had built between him and her — and that she had changed her mind about “divorcing the son of a gun.”

Now being a fisherman, I knew Bill could tell a “whale of tale,” but the story made sense to me from what I saw on the river and at the group’s lunch afterward where you could feel the fraternity and friendship.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just veterans helping veterans.

Several of the volunteers there that Sunday morning never served in the military — nor did all of them have a personal connection to it — but they wanted to help out by being guides or taking a video of a veteran bringing a tricky trout to hand.

In one instance, a volunteer had a distant tie to a service member. He told me he was there for his deceased grandfather, a World War II veteran, and a man he clearly missed from the look in his eyes.

Henry David Thoreau once said: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

In this case, it’s about helping and healing through fishing those who have selflessly gone in harm’s way for us; who, on the day they “signed up,” wrote a blank check to Uncle Sam for an amount up to and including their life, as one shipmate often reminds me.

It’s wonderful that so many Americans have stood up to say “thank you” to our veterans, in this case by teaching them how to tie a fly or taking the obligatory “grip and grin” photo after landing a “byoooot” of a rainbow trout.

From the expressions on the veterans’ and volunteers’ faces on that day, Churchill was onto something when he said that a life isn’t what you get, it’s what you give. Thankfully, Project Healing Waters puts the words of that ideal into action.

Dr. Peter Brookes has a home in Fort Valley and scribbles about the great outdoors whenever he can. Email: ‎brookesoutdoors@gmail.com.