JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- For many veterans, nature is a way to disconnect from the day-to-day and the battles that come after serving in the military.
Project Healing Waters hopes to help veterans do both by teaching them how to fly fish.
“It’s been 55 years, but it’s still not easy to talk about,” said Navy Veteran Ernest Linkous. “I was there tet 67 tet 68 tet 69. The worst part of the war and it was pretty rough.”
He told News Channel 11 that 10 people were killed in his first four hours in Vietnam. He would have to go into the country to pick up those who were wounded or killed in action.
“Part of my job was when the medevac choppers would land, we would take them off the chopper and take them down to the E.R. and to the O.R. and treat them,” Linkous recalled.
Decades later, he said processing those experiences is still difficult. But he has found an escape through fly fishing with Project Healing Waters.
“It’s very therapeutic to be standing out on the Watauga or one of the creeks or streams and just sitting out there listening to water go by, watching eagles fly overhead or watching the Osprey fly overhead,” he said. “When I came here, I didn’t know the difference between a tippet or a hook or anything else. I’ve made two fly rods, I make a lot of flies. So it’s been very helpful.”
It’s a non-profit that teaches veterans everything they need to know, from tying a fly to building a rod and everything in between.
“The success of Project Healing Waters is getting guys out on the water, teaching them to fly fish and seeing the difference it makes in the way that they’re thinking, and see how calm they become, and just how focused they are,” said Jason Shaw, the program lead for Project Healing Waters in Johnson City.
For some, the program has physical benefits.
“When I came into the program, I said, ‘I don’t know if you guys could take me on or not’,” said Air Force veteran Jill Stephens. “I said, you know, I use a walker, I use a cane for long distances to get around and you’re talking about wading waters.”
She said she suffers from multiple sclerosis.
“The program taught me, number one, how to cast, which I had to stand up and do. And I keep my balance and actually made me get out of the chair and move,” she said. “It takes a lot of concentration. It’s very tedious and makes you really get out of whatever’s in your head and concentrate on what’s going on right in front of you.”
And if she can’t, there’s always a fellow veteran or volunteer to help.
“I have to have a person on each side of me to keep me upright. If it’s moving water like the South Holston, for example, or the Watauga,” she said. “But a better way is to actually get me on a float boat and let me float down the river with a guide that helps me spot where the water should be and they row the boat.”
While those in Project Healing Waters enjoy fly fishing, it’s the friendship and camaraderie that makes it so helpful.
“It’s very healing to be out in nature,” Shaw said. “It’s very calming to the mind. And it gives you things to concentrate on very specifically so that you can fly fish successfully, and it seems to help veterans be able to just kind of relax and step back and not think about other things that are going on.”
Shaw said there’s usually someone from the group fishing every day. He said they still get together when it’s too cold to be on the water.
Project Healing Waters meets on the first Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. at Freedom Hall in Johnson City. They’re always looking for veterans and volunteers. You don’t have to have any fly fishing experience to join.