Archived Outdoors

Healing in the waters: Disabled vets find comfort, camaraderie in fly fishing

out frOut of Ed Norris’ 68 years of life, Vietnam accounts for just one. Those months he spent deployed with the U.S. Marine Corps are now almost half a century distant, but Norris’s time in the service changed his life forever, the emotional and physical evidence still apparent. 

“There were times when I worked at a job I wore a suit, and walking down the street a truck backfired,” he said. “I hit the deck. I turned around and had to go home and change clothes because I messed up my suit.”

Norris never feels comfortable in a crowd. He suffers mini seizures that affect his speech and behaviors. When sitting down he always picks a spot with his back to the wall. 

But three years ago, Norris, of Hendersonville, joined Project Healing Waters, and things started to change. Founded in 2005, Project Healing Waters now has chapters nationwide that use fly fishing as a form of physical and emotional rehabilitation for disabled veterans. The definition of “disabled” is wide, spanning everything from post-traumatic stress syndrome to limb loss.

“When I started learning how to tie flies, I just went to another world,” Norris said. “I forgot about everything. I was just concentrating on how to tie the flies. I forgot about all my pain, the aches, everything that was going on.”

It’s proven an important form of healing for Norris, who on Oct. 9 was hanging around the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians in Cherokee, waiting for the Healing Waters retreat weekend to get started. It would be his third weekend fly fishing in Cherokee with the Healing Waters crew, who pour in from North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina for the annual retreat. 

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The weekend includes fly tying and casting clinics, guided and individual fishing and a reunion banquet, where, said organizer Rick Queen, of Waynesville, “there will be hugs and (hand)shakes. You’ll see tears shed.”

Every year, the retreat attracts some newcomers, but there’s also a stable of returning anglers who see each other only at this and other regional Healing Waters events. This year, 37 participants signed up. The camaraderie is as important a component to the program as the fishing itself. 

“You just can’t do the military stuff and it not change your perspective,” said Joy Deitle, of Waynesville. “You just can’t. And people that’s not in the military don’t understand that.”

Deitle, 58, retired from the Navy in 2001 after 17 years as a physician’s assistant, spending a chunk of that time aboard an aircraft carrier with 5,200 other people. She missed a lot of Christmases at home, gave up a lot of the space and privacy that most people enjoy to accommodate the necessities of life aboard a densely populated ship. After retiring, she moved to Waynesville and started riding horses until she found herself battling breast cancer, of which she’s a survivor. 

She’s had diverse, powerful experiences in her life, and it can be hard to find people who understand, who see life the same way. 

“I don’t think the way other people think,” Deitle said. “Right now in my neighborhood we have a dirt road. Ten families use that dirt road, but only three of us maintain it. If that was a group of veterans, you can bet they would come together and form a committee and say, ‘What do we do to get this dirt road in shape?’”

In Project Healing Waters, she found her team of veterans. Deitle drives to Asheville three times a week to participate in the chapter there, tying flies and shooting the breeze with people who understand. 

“It’s very therapeutic,” she said. “(Some nights) I’m just so tired I don’t want to go, but then you go and it’s just relaxing to sit there and tie flies. We pick at each other and make jokes and it’s just a lot of fun.”

The meetings are great. But for Deitle, the fishing is the best part. She fishes with a rod she built herself as a new member of Healing Waters, and it’s always a point of pride to pull one out of the water, no matter its size. But just being outdoors, away from the chaos of everyday life, is the best part. One of her favorite memories is the day she was out with the group when they stumbled across a huge bull elk, looking across the river to where a female elk with calves stood, calling to him. 

“Didn’t catch any fish that day, fell in the river twice, but seeing that big bull there and the mother with the babies on the other side of the river was really an impressive experience,” she said.

Justin Walter, a program director for Healing Waters from Augusta, Georgia, knows well the healing power of fly fishing. An Army veteran of three combat tours whose father also served in the military, Walter’s been fishing for a long time. It was how he and his dad bonded, a tradition they continued when Walter joined the military himself. 

“I would come back from the military or back from deployment, and that would be the time to spend together,” he said. 

When he heard about Healing Waters, he said, “I wasn’t looking to be a participant. I was looking to be a volunteer and show our veterans what it does for me.” 

Now, he heads up the program at the Charlie Norwood V.A. Medical Center, where veterans come for weeks or months to get treatment. Healing Waters gives them a chance to learn a new skill and break up the monotony of the day. 

“Justin [Walter] gives them an alternative, and I think it’s very valuable,” said Joel Breakstone, a veteran himself who volunteers with Walter. 

Fly fishing is a limitless sport, Walter said, with many areas of expertise to be explored and emphasis on technique rather than brute strength — meaning that it’s accessible to people whose physical abilities aren’t what they once were. 

The skills are important, and Healing Waters participants are more than happy to geek out on innovative fly patterns and the plethora of fishing memorabilia at the new museum in Cherokee. But at its heart, the program is about much more than that. 

“My wife has been really glad I got involved with Project Healing Waters,” Norris said. “She’s seen the difference in my behaviors. I’m more calmer and she’s glad to see me go fishing, go tie flies, get me out of the house.”

It’s a good thing to get out for, the vets agreed, even as they faced a forecast full of rain for their annual get-together. The fish bite better in the rain, anyway, and regardless of the weather, you get to see the people. 

“It’s sort of like a family unit,” Deitle said. 

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