BURLINGTON, Vermont — The Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Burlington was quiet on a steamy summer day except for the sound of a fan and occasional banter among the veterans who concentrated on the tiny pieces of feathers, fur and thread in front of them.
Their hands worked diligently, yet carefully, illuminated by adjustable desk lamps. Their task: Tying fishing flies.
The therapeutic task and the camaraderie are what has them hooked on their weekly get-together sponsored by Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc.
Dr. Leigh Wheeler, 75, a parishioner at St. Andrew Church in Waterbury, Vermont, was an infantry officer in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and drives 35 miles each week to join the group. He finds support from the other veterans who empathize with his experiences in the war, especially having had a “number of contacts with the enemy” and witnessing soldiers being killed in action.
“It’s a comfortable environment,” the retired emergency physician told Vermont Catholic magazine, publication of the Burlington Diocese.
Project Healing Waters is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and related activities including education and outings. The nonprofit organization is incorporated in Maryland.
Though not a veteran, Edmundite Brother Francis Hagerty, a spiritual and retreat director based at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, is active in the Burlington group.
He began fly fishing in the 1980s after a friend got him interested and taught him the basics. Soon he was taking a fly-tying course and learned how to tie flies that mimic insects and small fish that fish like to eat.
“I enjoyed catching fish on flies that I had made myself. That got me hooked; but I found there is a lot more to fly fishing,” he said.
Hagerty always has loved being in nature and fly fishing has brought him closer to it. “The more I’ve learned about the life cycles of insects and the habits of fish, the more deeply I have appreciated the beauty of creation and the wonder of it all,” he said.
Daphne Zencey, a Project Healing Waters volunteer and Veterans Administration peer support specialist, is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. She also is a former Project Healing Waters participant.
“We are searching for that camaraderie and being part of a group of veterans who understand a different perspective of life and serving the greater good,” she said.
Hagerty’s fly-tying skill and his presence are appreciated in the group, Zencey added.
The Edmundite likes fly fishing because it pulls him into a meditative mood.
“I need to approach the water slowly and carefully, so I don’t spook the fish,” he explained. “I need to watch for insects and perhaps fish rising to catch them. I need to observe the water flow, and think, ‘If I were a trout, where would I be?'”
Then there’s the sounds of the water and the rhythm of casting. “The intense focus on all these things help me to quiet myself and feel the wonder of creation more deeply,” he said.
Cliff Lang, a parishioner of St. Mark Church in Burlington and a U.S. Army veteran, enjoys fly tying and building fly rods then fishing “in any river I can find.”
“It’s a ‘me’ time. It takes your mind away from troubles,” the former mechanic and truck driver said. “You feel blessed to be out in a stream or brook and be back with nature.”
Moe Forcier, a retired Vermont Department of Public Safety training officer who lives in Jonesville, Vermont, is another Army veteran. He said fly tying and fishing in Project Healing Waters “takes your mind off your demons because you have to concentrate.” And when he is outside fishing, “it is kind of like a prayer … being in tune with God through nature.”
Hagerty said a veteran once told him, “When you’re tying flies or fishing, all the bad stuff goes away.”
Fly tying pauses the busyness of the religious brother’s life and gives him an opportunity to be alone with God. “I might be working on something that is fairly intricate, but I find myself quieted and able to listen to God’s still, small voice,” he said.
He has to be vigilant in his prayer, too, alert for the signs of God trying to catch his attention. He calls these signs “Oh, wows” because they show him something he hadn’t noticed before or something with which he is familiar but now sees differently. They make him say to himself, “Oh, wow.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs recorded 25 veteran suicides in Vermont in 2016.
Aware of this and knowing several friends who were deeply affected by their experience in the military, Hagerty knew that fly tying and fishing have to be good for vets because he knows how the activities help him.
“I got involved with (Project Healing Waters) as a volunteer, and it has been a privilege to help folks heal and a blessing for me.”
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Urban is content editor/staff writer for Vermont Catholic magazine of the Diocese of Burlington.
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