Project Healing Waters helps veterans cast the war aside


The feathered lure kisses the water's surface and dances above the trout, begging to be swallowed.

"Perfect cast," says the instructor. "Right on the money."

The dark-haired pupil smiles slightly and grabs the rod a little tighter with his good hand, waiting to see if the speckled brown fish will take the bait.

But the trout has other ideas. It turns back to its cool lair under a partially submerged tree branch.

Others might be disappointed. Not Sgt. Russell Martin. A day on Morgan Run in Carroll County beats one spent with Army doctors and grueling therapy and talk of more surgery to repair his badly damaged left forearm.

For several hours, it's just Martin and a stretch of rushing water filled with fish and shaded by nearly century-old trees.

On the stream bank, fishing guide Philip Krista - himself a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War - beams at Miller's progress and calls out advice.

"If you were a fish, where would you be?" Krista hollers. "That fish is just lying there in his living room, waiting for the groceries. He's not going to come out and make your life easy."

Across the state, fly fishermen such as Krista and retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson are taking servicemen and servicewomen fishing. Project Healing Waters is modeled after Casting for Recovery, a nationally recognized therapy program for survivors of breast cancer.

"It's as good a way as we have to say thank you to these young men and women," says Krista, who lives in Ellicott City.

Founded two years ago by Nicholson, Project Healing Waters is just one of several Maryland nonprofit organizations whose mission is to get veterans back into the outdoors.

Team River Runner, started last year, uses a piece of the Potomac River in Montgomery County to teach kayak paddling skills to amputees.

Jim Bugg Sr., chairman of the Montgomery County-based Yellow Ribbon Fund, opens his Dorchester County farm to duck hunters from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

The Army hospital has a program within its occupational therapy clinic geared toward sportsmen and sportswomen. Although fishing and other outdoors activities might seem like trivial pursuits, therapists say they have larger physical and mental benefits.

"The psychological effect is tremendous. It helps self-perception and a feeling of independence. It's `I can do this,'" says Barry Yancosek, who established the program and helps Project Healing Waters. "We see amputees lying in bed saying, `What am I going to do? It's over.'

"That's baloney. We just have to figure out another way to get the job done. I haven't seen anyone who wanted to get back out in the field and couldn't."

Yancosek figures out how to adapt gear. It may mean moving a handle for an amputee or a gun sight for someone blind in one eye. An instructor at Project Healing Waters offers fly-tying courses for one-armed anglers.

"There's a real benefit to them being out together," Yancosek says. "They are brothers-in-arms. You get them together and they start talking about experiences. They are saying things to each other that only one amputee can say to another. They're back in their element."

That's why Nicholson hopes he can attract enough donations to offer fishing trips to those in Veterans Administration homes and take more wounded veterans on trips outside the region.

Martin was hours from his deployment in Iraq last November when he was seriously injured in a bus crash. The driver taking his Delaware National Guard unit to a Kuwait airfield lost control and rolled the vehicle. Nineteen out of 30 soldiers were injured. One died.

"I guess I was the lucky one," says Martin, 26, who was sitting in the back of the bus. "It happened so fast. As soon as it started tipping I said, `Holy moly, this is going to hurt.'"

Martin's left forearm was crushed. Muscles, tendons and flesh were pulverized. With other injured soldiers, he was airlifted to a military hospital in Germany and then to Walter Reed in Washington.

Eight surgeries rebuilt his arm's infrastructure. For covering, doctors used skin from his leg and "my love-handle area," Martin says, with a shy grin.

It is a work in progress, with at least one or two more operations needed to allow him to clench and unclench his left fist.

"It really doesn't hurt," says the eight-year National Guard veteran. "It's getting better all the time. I'm just ready to go home to my regular life, my job, my wife and son and eat bonbons."

Before his deployment, Martin loved to bass-fish with his father and his 7-year-old son, Hunter. This fly-fishing thing, he says, is something new.

Within 40 minutes, he has the hang of casting. Two hours later, he's knee-deep in Morgan Run, casting to pools of still water. Before the morning is out, a small sunfish will take Martin's feathered lure - the only bite of the day.

After Martin releases the fish and wades to shore, his face breaks into a smile.

"It was more of a challenge than I thought," says the soldier who faces them every day. "I thought I did all right."

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