FORT LEWIS – Spc. Bret DiFrancesco’s big fingers froze in place and he looked toward his veteran instructor.
DiFrancesco wasn’t firing a rifle or working on infantry skills. He was trying to figure out how to wrap a pheasant feather around a hook and smooth the cantankerous fibers back at the same time.
“Switch hands, and wrap the feather with your right hand and pull back the fibers with your left hand,” said Dick Stearns, a local fly angler and fly tier.
DiFrancesco — whose uniform is adorned with the Combat Infantryman Badge, awarded to infantry soldiers who have been under fire in combat — thought for a couple of seconds. Then he carefully pinched the delicate feather with two beefy fingers of his right hand and wound the feather on the hook.
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“It’s a Carey Special fly,” DiFrancesco said.
“Now, you’ve got to learn how to do a whip finish so the thread won’t unwind,” Stearns said.
“Oh, boy,” DiFrancesco said. “Here we go.”
Learning how to tie flies, cast a fly rod and hook a few fish isn’t standard military training, but it has become so for the Warrior Transition Battalion. Every Tuesday afternoon volunteers from Project Healing Waters arrive in the barracks meeting room, set up fly-tying vises, rig fly rods, and help soldiers heal.
The soldiers who are placed in the Warrior Transition Battalion need six months or more of complex medical care. They come from different Army units, and some will remain in the Army after their time in the battalion, while others will eventually return to civilian life.
But every soldier in the battalion has a chance to learn fly fishing from volunteers for Trout Unlimited and Federation of Fly Fishers chapters as part of Project Healing Waters, said Chuck Tye of Olympia.
“Project Healing Waters has been at Fort Lewis for about a year now,” said Tye, a retired U.S. Marine who is the Northwest regional coordinator for the program. “The program offers both mental and physical healing for veterans, whether they have post-traumatic stress disorder or injuries.”
PROJECT HEALING WATERS
Some combat veterans with severe wounds return to the United States and wonder what the rest of their life has to offer, Tye said.
Teaching veterans how to tie flies, cast and fly rod — and then taking them on fishing outings to the Yakima River or American Lake — introduces soldiers to the tranquility and fascination that fly fishing offers.
The intricate work of tying a fly or the precise timing of casting a fly rod combine physical therapy and mental therapy, Tye said.
Soldiers who have lost a limb or suffered other terrible wounds soon learn they still can do all it takes to catch fish.
“We look at this as part of the medical kit bag that helps soldiers regain what they have lost,” Tye said.
It’s Tye’s job to connect members of the military with civilian fly anglers in the Northwest. Project Healing Waters was started in 2005 in the Washington, D.C., area, and there are now programs in 38 states, he said.
LEARNING NEW SKILLS
Spc. Asha Bibby, 23, sat at a vise with volunteer Dwight Caron and gingerly wrapped thread around a hook. Bibby was nervous and didn’t have much to say. Then she tied on a long tail of marabou feathers, and Caron helped her tie in a black chenille thread and a chicken feather.
Bibby — now smiling — wrapped the chenille and feathers on the hook and tied them off.
“It’s a Woolly Bugger,” Bibby said. “It’s my first fly.”
Bibby, who is dealing with PTSD after a 14-month deployment to Iraq, showed her fly to everyone in the room. Then she tied another fly, a Stimulator dry fly.
Caron told Bibby that she had a talent for tying.
“These flies will catch fish,” Bibby said. “They are so intricate — there’s a lot that goes into tying flies.”
Bibby planned to tie more flies the following Tuesday — and to learn how to cast a fly rod. “I’ve never been fly fishing before, but I’m going to learn,” she said.
It’s focusing on the process that helps soldiers heal, said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Elsmore, who works with Warrior Transition Battalion soldiers.
“Your focus is on tying that fly — and you’re not worrying,” said Elsmore, who has served two stints in Iraq. “You’re just enjoying yourself while tying flies. It’s very calming, especially if you have anxiety.”
IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Tye said Project Healing Waters continues to grow, and it will remain a way for veterans to reconnect with quiet pleasures.
Many soldiers get hooked on tying flies and fly fishing, and the time creating flies or casting for fish becomes a lifelong passion – and stress reliever, Tye said.
“We had two young guys recovering from wounds start tying here a while back, and now they help teach others,” Tye said.
Spc. DiFrancesco kept up a constant chatter as he cranked out fly after fly.
“When you get shot at, you get mad,” he said. “When you get blown up, it’s a surprise.”
This was DiFrancesco’s third fly-tying session, and rows of his creations filled a fly box.
“This is so cool,” he said. “I like doing it,”
Then DiFrancesco looked at Stearns and smiled. They had been tying together non-stop for more than two hours.
“OK,” DiFrancesco said. “What fly are we doing now?”
To learn more
For more information on volunteering for Project Healing Waters — or to donate fly-fishing equipment or fly-tying supplies — call Chuck Tye at 360-915-9438 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
For more information on Project Healing Waters, go to www.projecthealingwaters.org.