Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Schriever Sentinel

Military heal through fly fishing

By 2nd Lt. Marie Denson

50th Space Wing Public Affairs

It’s an early morning, and the fresh Colorado air chills the skin as people begin to set up their equipment. Get a good stance, pause, pickup, back-cast and forward stroke. After a few casts on the still water the fly rod begins to flex, it’s time to reel the fish in.

This was Senior Airman Michael Burton’s experience earlier this month as he joined the Project Healing Water Fly Fishing group’s trip to Maria Lake near Walsenburg, Colo.

Airman Burton, 21st Medical Group technician, has been assigned to Schriever since November, 2010. On a typical day he sets up appointments, performs physical health assessments, vaccines or anything the doctors need help with. But, each Thursday, Airman Burton drives up to Fort Carson to help disabled active duty members and veterans learn how to tie “flies.”

A “fly” is an imitation insect used to provoke the fish to strike in a method of fishing called fly fishing.

While looking around a local fly shop last year Airman Burton stumbled upon the volunteer opportunity with Project Healing Waters Fly-Fishing.

PHWFF is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting in the physical and emotional rehabilitation of all disabled active duty military personnel and veterans through fly fishing, fly tying education and outings. Currently there are more than 100 programs established in the United States and Canada, focused on helping military personnel.

After learning about PHWFF, Airman Burton began volunteering weekly at the Fort Carson chapter which receives most of its participation from the warrior transition unit at Fort Carson Army Post.

“I started volunteering as an instructor shortly after I got here in November,” he said. “Each class is seven weeks long. Sessions are held Thursdays at Fort Carson for two hours. I do just about every class. I signed up to help instruct this last class that started last week, the only thing that will prevent me from going is if my wife goes into labor, she is expecting in April.”

The program has offerings year round. During the winter months, classes are offered at Fort Carson to disabled active duty members and veterans to learn how to tie flies.

“During each session we teach different skills and how to use different tools,” said Airman Burton. “We start off with the most basic flies to learn. It helps the disabled active duty members and veterans get the basic skills. Toward the end of the seven weeks they are producing more difficult flies.”

Sergeant Chad Rhodes, a Fort Carson soldier, first found out about PHWFF from a flyer posted on the bulletin board at the behavioral health clinic at Fort Carson and began taking the class in January. Sergeant Rhoades suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapeutically, he said the class has been invaluable in allowing him to relax and clear his mind.

“I couldn’t even begin to put a value on the class,” Sergeant Rhodes said. “It is very relaxing and soothing; you can turn off a part of your brain so you just focus on the process.”

Airman Burton was Sergeant Rhodes personal instructor in the class.

“Mike was an outstanding teacher,” he said. “I had questions to go along with everything, I’m the type that looks for constructive criticism and he was willing to give that help. He would show me tricks that weren’t in the book, tricks to doing techniques in different ways and incorporate that into what we were doing.”

Sergeant Rhodes believes that this is something that will help him into the future as he continues on with the skill set. Not only has it helped him with PTSD, but it is also a new hobby he enjoys doing.

During the summer and spring months, day and weekend trips are planned to teach more about how to fly-fish, such as the day trip Airman Burton took earlier this month.

“I went on my first day trip [with PHWFF] to Maria Lake,” he said. “The fish were huge. It was a lot of fun. The trips help teach different techniques, such as if they are on a river we teach how to mend a line, and we work on fly selection based on the bugs that are hatching at the time. We work on landing and treating the fish correctly and making sure they are held correctly so it doesn’t hurt the fish, since its all catch and release.”

Airman Burton takes pleasure in seeing something he enjoys help others.

“This program helps with the disabled active duty members and veterans therapy and hand eye coordination,” he said. “It also helps people focus on something other than their injuries so they can handle it better. PHWFF gives them another way to deal with things and they get to learn a new skill. Some guys take off with fly tying and they enjoy doing it. It’s rewarding to know we taught them how to do that.”

This program is not only beneficial to participants, but also to the instructors.

“It’s fun to joke around with everyone,” said Airman Burton. “I do [PHWFF] because it helps them and it helps me because I get to learn a lot by watching the other instructors and I get to know the soldiers.”

If you would like more information about PHWFF please contact Gary Spuhler at 291-3112.

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