Veterans take to Cherokee waters for healing
I don't do people, Bart Crowe said matter-of-factly.
But there he was getting his fishing tackle together to hit the trophy waters in Cherokee with a couple of fishing buddies.
Crowe carried an M-60 machine gun during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. His war was four days long, he said, and punctuated by a 20-hour tank battle. Now he is a disabled veteran with diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic brain injury, fybromyalgia and chronic fatigue.
I don't sleep. I've bounced from job to job. I've literally gone after bosses, Crowe said. I really don't do people. I center my life around veterans.
Crowe and a handful of other Western North Carolina veterans gathered at River's Edge Outfitters in Cherokee on Monday morning and then headed up Oconaluftee River to fish alongside members of the North Carolina Fly Fishing Team. The outing was the inaugural fishing event for the Cherokee Chapter of Project Healing Waters.
For Crowe, it was a much-needed respite.
Just getting out there on the water is relaxing, Crowe said. It's not about catching fish. It's about getting some peace and hearing the streams instead of thinking about things I shouldn't.
Project Healing Waters was founded in 2005 as a way to help rehabilitate wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Today, there are more than 80 chapters nationwide and the project continues to grow.
John Bass, the project's regional coordinator for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, has been involved since the beginning. Bass is wheelchair-bound, having broken his neck in a swimming pool in 1974. He got involved in Project Healing Waters after meeting a young wounded veteran on the water near Lebanon, Va.
I made up my mind right then, that I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do something to help these guys, Bass said.
Bass called Project Healing Waters founder Ed Nicholson, and the rest is history. He started working with veterans at Walter Reed and realized he had something special to give them. Having been a fly fisherman since his school days, he never let his injury keep him from his passion afterwards.
It's sort of hard for a guy to tell me he can't do it, when I've done it, Bass said.
Bass has a special place in his heart for the Cherokee chapter of the organization because of his longstanding friendship with a Native American Vietnam Veteran from Kyle, South Dakota, named Archie Hopkins.
I think a lot of the reason the veterans today get the opportunities they do is because the guys from Vietnam didn't get the thank yous they deserved, Bass said.
Crowe, whose father is a Vietnam veteran and whose two brothers served in Iraq, agrees.
My father dealt with people in airports spitting, calling him baby-killer, but when I got home, I got an orange certificate, Crowe said. The country did an about face and started welcoming home its veterans.
But after the hero's welcome, life wasn't the same for Crowe. He drank heavily and divorced his first wife. He hit rock bottom one day and checked himself into the suicide watch at a hospital in Gainesville, Fla. Since that time, he's actively sought ways to deal with his PTSD, which he says acts the same for everybody whether they got it in Vietnam or the desert.
It's all the same. One place had trees and the other had nothing. I tried to have a job and a family and put it all behind me and it didn't work, Crowe said.
After moving to North Carolina, Crowe heard about Operation Healing Waters through the VA, and he has embraced it wholeheartedly.
On Monday, Crowe was fishing with Jamie Dufault, a 29-year-old disabled veteran who lives in Hendersonville, and Brandon Wilson, a 31-year-old Brevard native who got back from Iraq in February and now lives in Maggie Valley.
Wilson, a life-long fly fisherman, has organized a side project called Pints and Flies at the Rendezvous Bar inside the Maggie Valley Inn and Conference Center as a way of sharing his passion for the sport.
It's awesome to see guys getting into it, beginning to understand it for themselves, Wilson said. You don't think about anything you did in war. It's just you and a little bitty fish out there in the water.
Crowe's wife Melinda, tied him a fly at Pints and Flies. It was pink and purple and three times the size of a normal wooly bugger. He caught three fish with it.
The art of healing
Joanie Ledford is a recreation therapist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Asheville. Ledford has been involved with the Asheville chapter of Project Healing Waters for two years, and she sees the fishing as a multi-faceted therapy that incorporates fine motor coordination, self-esteem building, and patience.
It lets them learn that they can continue fishing or learn a new skill no matter what their ability is, Ledford said. To help the overcome their limitations and learn some self-confidence.
Ledford's embrace of the program has been crucial. Project Healing Waters chapters require a VA or Department of Defense hospital or clinic to act as hosts, a local fly fishing organization to supply volunteers and organize events, and wounded or disabled veterans who want to participate.
In the case of the Cherokee chapter of Project Healing Waters, the North Carolina Fly Fishing Team is the sponsor organization, and their effort is supported by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal fishery.
Fisheries Manager Robert Blankenship said helping underwrite Operating Healing Waters is a chance for the tribe to accomplish its goal of providing an accessible fishery for everyone. Blankenship hopes to see the Cherokee chapter attract Native American veterans from the Qualla Boundary, and to that end, the tribe will help host a tournament event in September that will feature a team of Cherokee veterans against a team of veterans from North Carolina.
We'll support them in any way we can, Blankenship said.
On Monday, Blankenship closed a section of trophy water to give the veterans first crack at the giant rainbow, brown and brook trout there.
Troy Bailey, a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair, got some individual attention from Asheville project coordinator Ryan Harmon, and much to his own surprise hooked a beautiful trout.
Somewhere far upriver Crowe, Wilson and Dufault waded into the water.