Project Healing Waters rehabilitates wounded veterans |

Project Healing Waters rehabilitates wounded veterans

With American service members seeing combat around the world, the rhetoric of helping wounded veterans returning from service has increased in the past few years.

Many of these veterans return with physical wounds, while others return with deep emotional wounds. There are those who have both.

While it’s important to start a discourse, it’s more important to take action.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a national nonprofit, 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," according to its mission statement.

The High Country Fly Fishers — the Park City Branch of Trout Unlimited — sponsors a Utah-based Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Salt Lake City, said Michael Leigh, the program lead.

"We have an agreement to provide volunteers and support the program, and have been doing this since 2011," Leigh said during an interview with The Park Record. "We meet twice a week, Thursday nights and Friday afternoons, and we teach fly tying and fly casting and also go fishing. We do two big trips and some little ones throughout the year."

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Last Friday, May 27, the High Country Fly Fishers took a big trip with nearly 30 veterans during a Project Healing Waters outing in the Wasatch Back.

"The veterans met at the VA Hospital in Salt Lake City and got on busses and headed out, while the volunteers and guides met up here in Park City and met them at the fishing spot," Leigh said. "We had volunteers that came from as far as Eden and Ogden and as close as Park City, Heber and Salt Lake City."

Many of the volunteers are associated with Trout Unlimited, but some weren’t, according to Leigh.

The fun started mid-morning.

"We started fishing around 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. and broke for lunch around noon," he said.

Lunch was provided by Squeal Barbecue, a local caterer.

"The food was fantastic and everyone was really happy," Leigh said. "We went back fishing after lunch."

The weather cooperated early in the day.

"It was great before lunch because the wind held off until about 1 o’clock," he said. "The water was just like glass."

During these big outings, High Country Fly Fishers try to recruit one volunteer per veteran.

"The only time that is different is when they go out on a boat," Leigh explained. "That’s when there are usually two veterans per volunteer."

Leigh said there is nothing more therapeutic for him than fly fishing.

"I’ve heard it said that when you’re out on the river, the water carries your problems away," he said. "It’s the only thing I know where I can go out onto the river and forget everything else including any worries and cares. You concentrate on what you’re doing at that particular time. You’re outdoors and it’s all very engaging."

Leigh has seen how the program helps veterans.

"One of our participants, who has been in our program for a year and a half, has a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder," Leigh said. "He was struggling and had a real hard time with life in general.

"I’m not a doctor, but one of those things that seems to be typical with those injuries is that they clam up, don’t communicate or socialize and hole themselves up in a room unless it’s absolutely necessary," he said. "That’s where this gentleman was when he started in the program, and now, he socializes a great deal and credits the program with helping him make the change."

Sometimes fly tying can help bring a change.

"I heard from a volunteer about another participant who started fly tying with us," Leigh said. "The veteran’s hands shook and have shaken ever since his injury. In fact, his doctor told him that his hands would shake for the rest of his life."

When the volunteer set up a fly tying station, the veteran said he couldn’t do it.

"The volunteer said, ‘We don’t do can’t, so let’s try,’" Leigh said. "A while later, the volunteer stopped by the station and told the gentleman to look at his hands. They were steady as he was tying."

Leigh isn’t sure how that happened.

"I don’t know if fly tying occupies the brain or that he was concentrating so much that the tying took over, but they weren’t shaking," he said.

The veteran eventually moved out of state, but the volunteer who helped him sees him on occasion.

"He told us the man still fly fishes," Leigh said.

The Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program is free for participating veterans.

"We provide the fly tying equipment and the fishing equipment for our outings and activities," Leigh said. "If someone wants to purchase their own equipment, they are welcome to bring them along, but we don’t give equipment away."

The program also features rod building in the winter.

It isn’t, however, for a veteran who just wants to go fishing.

"Veterans who are eligible to participate need to have a disability rating or be in the process of getting a disability rating from the VA or under the care of the VA," Leigh said. "Veterans can also be recommended for the program from a medical professional. It’s for people who need the help."

For more information about Project Healing Waters, visit or . For more information about High Country Fly Fishers, visit