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Healing Waters: Why We Veterans Fish, and the Value of Public Lands

posted Nov 23, 2015, 9:41 AM by David Lillard   [ updated Nov 23, 2015, 9:44 AM ]
By Paul Wilson

As our nation emerges from two wars, Americans are looking for ways to help military personnel heal from physical battle wounds and emotional trauma. Public lands don’t get a much attention for their healing benefits, but from my experience as a Marine Corps veteran working with veterans, I can see how public lands matter.

I recently took a group of veterans on fly-fishing as part of my work with Project Healing Waters Fly-fishing, a program I started in 2012 at my local VA Medical Center. PHWFF is a community-based, volunteer organization dedicated to the physical and psychological rehabilitation of active duty military personnel and veterans with disabilities through the therapeutic benefits of fly-fishing. We provide instruction on fly-casting and fly-tying, and organize outings at a local spring-fed pond. Working with veterans outdoors reflects how nature helped shaped my life after my military service.  

Shortly after returning home to Michigan from a three-year stint in the United States Marine Corps, I started camping out, first on motorcycle trips then car camping, then trips with friends to Michigan state parks. Within three years I was backpacking — a curious activity after spending my Marine Corps years in the infantry, including a year in a machine gun team in Vietnam. My first trip was to Grand Teton National Park. A sense of peace and wonder came over me as I stood high above tree-line, marveling in that majestic alpine landscape with patches of snow, lakes, and granite peaks.

My second summer in the Tetons brought an interest in fly-fishing and a passion for pursuing wild trout in high mountain lakes and streams.  I roamed the backcountry looking for little gems hidden between those granite peaks.  I also ventured into national forest wilderness areas looking for remote lakes that may contain a monster-sized trout, always surprised at my inner peace whether sitting by an alpine lake or fly-casting into a mountain stream. 

In my retirement, it’s been an honor to share this peacefulness with other veterans. Nationwide, our Project Healing Waters Fly-fishing events are almost exclusively on private ponds and privately managed stretches of rivers that ensure a disabled vet or wounded warrior will hook a big trout or bass. But the costs of these private fishing experiences are prohibitive for most veterans returning home or relocating to other parts of the country. That’s why public lands and the access they provide are so important. To pursue wild trout, we need cold, clean waters. Often, public lands are the only venue that provides access to those freely flowing waters.

One of my early PHWFF participants was a Persian Gulf War veteran. The first time I took him fishing the conditions on the river were brutal: air temps below freezing with water temperature below 40 degrees. Still, he fished all day, quickly realizing the peaceful, calming effect of working his fly-line in moving water.

More than 90 percent of West Virginia’s native trout streams are in the Monongahela National Forest. There are many reasons to protect fish habitat there. I want to add another: helping veterans heal and develop a deeper appreciation for the country they have defended.

In the mountains of West Virginia, greater protections are needed for the headwaters areas of our rivers to ensure colder stream waters for our native brook trout.  The proposal to designate a portion of the Monongahela National Forest as the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument would be great way to protect the headwaters of some blue-ribbon trout streams in West Virginia. It would also offer increased habitat improvements and maintain access for local communities. 

As a veteran, I realized early on that what I was fighting for was a more inclusive American Experience—one that includes our rich history of public lands and protection of our natural resources for the benefits of future generations.  As a Marine general once told me, “a country worth defending, is a country worth preserving.” Now those words have even greater meaning for me. 

Increased protections for our West Virginia waters and native brook trout are for me a no-brainer. A National Monument in West Virginia could be for veterans what the Grand Tetons were for me: A landscape that inspires vets to connect their fellow servicemen and women with the great outdoors.

Paul Wilson is a retired wildlife biologist who worked and fished in Nepal, Chile, and Canada before moving east and settling in Charles Town, W.Va