Group leads veterans to peaceful waters
EDWARDS, Colorado – John Payne has seen combat overseas. He prefers fighting trout.
Payne was one of a group of seven veterans from Fort Carson near Colorado who came to the Vail Valley recently courtesy of Healing Waters, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping those injured in combat. The group helps veterans find some calm in their own lives through a combination of both fishing and learning how to tie flies.
“I’d never fished a river before,” Payne said. The Florida native also hadn’t fished for trout before coming on this trip.
“I never thought you’d be able to catch such a big fish on such a small lure,” Payne said. “It’s really a challenge – it’s a lot more rewarding. You have to work harder to land one.”
The three-day trip to this area was the second this summer for Jesse Aburto.
“I like being out on the water,” Aburto said. “You’re away from the city – there’s no noise.”
The Healing Waters idea isn’t new. In fact, it was pioneered in World War II, when a Navy captain thought he could help injured veterans regain some lost dexterity and concentration through the Zen-like discipline of fly-tying and the patient skill of fishing.
The Colorado arm of Healing Waters was founded in 2007. Co-founder Gordy Rothoff said the idea is to get the veterans out of their barracks and back into the world.
“They’re learning to deal with and trust civilians again,” Rothoff said. “We get them out, and pretty soon they’re calling each other.”
While the Vail Veterans Program – which brings injured veterans to the valley in the spring and summer – brings military members straight from the hospitals, the veterans that Healing Waters brought to the area aren’t obviously injured. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder, some have brain injuries.
But the first rule of Healing Waters is that what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan doesn’t matter. Healing Waters takes men and women based on referrals from unit leaders or superior officers. Then they go fishing and learn to tie flies.
“We don’t ask questions,” Rothoff said.
On the other hand, some participants do talk about their combat experience.
“If they volunteer information, we’ll listen,” volunteer Kip Dellinger said. “But we don’t talk about what they tell us.”
Dellinger is a member of Home Waters, a private fishing club that owns private water around the country. Home Waters is an active participant in the Healing Waters program, and Dellinger has hosted a small group at his home near Durango.
Local guides donated their time for this trip, and Home Waters provided access to some of its water along the Yampa River. Lodging was donated, and Zak Stone provided the group a memorable farewell meal at the French Press in Edwards Monday.
“We take whatever help we can get,” Rothoff said. “Home Waters members paid for this trip.”
Rothoff said Healing Waters will have booths at trade shows and exhibits to generate interest, and contacts local fly fishing shops.
While Healing Waters has only been operating for a few years, it’s already affected a lot of lives.
Matthew Granberg is a former Healing Waters participant who’s now retired from the Army and is starting a career as a fishing guide.
“I love the outdoors and working with people,” Granberg said. “I love the opportunity I’ve had (with Healing Waters). It helps everyone involved.”
Recognizing that the veterans who came on the trip to this valley still have some adjusting to do to their lives after combat, trip organizers invited Sarah Will to Monday’s dinner.
Will has spent the last 22 years in a wheelchair, and is the most decorated American skier of all time because of her success in Paralympic and other disabled skiing events.
“Because you’ve fought for us, you’re already an inspiration,” Will told the group. “Be the leaders you want to be.”
But, Will told the group, there will be hard times in the future.
“Let yourself fail – know that you’ll take one step forward and three steps back sometimes,” she said.
Dellinger said he was also inspired by fishing with this group.
“I can’t describe how much I’ve enjoyed the last three days,” he told the group. “You’re all welcome back any time.”