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Casting off the pain

Wounded vets find comfort from fly fishing

Sep. 12, 2009 - 03:10PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 12, 2009 - 03:10PM  |  
Afghanistan veteran Ryan Carr, left, and Iraq veteran Dale Cherney, right, fish the North Platte River near Casper, Wyo., with their guide Kray Lutz. The veterans took part in the Project Healing Waters fly fishing program, which gives wounded active military personnel and veterans the chance to take guided fly fishing tours and fly tying lessons.
Afghanistan veteran Ryan Carr, left, and Iraq veteran Dale Cherney, right, fish the North Platte River near Casper, Wyo., with their guide Kray Lutz. The veterans took part in the Project Healing Waters fly fishing program, which gives wounded active military personnel and veterans the chance to take guided fly fishing tours and fly tying lessons. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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CASPER, Wyo. The morning smells of last night's rain, shrouded by a quiet you have to leave town to hear. Here at Bessemer Bend on the North Platte River, it's a good morning to concentrate. Back and forth. To and fro. Ryan Carr swings his fly rod over the water, watching the line snap at each apex.

"Get it out there, buddy," says his fishing guide, Kray Lutz.

"Throw it down. Good."

Carr's fly ripples the water. Lutz guides the boat and lets it drift.

Carr's not thinking of it, but the swing loosens muscles in his back, shoulder and hip. When he ties flies off the water, it improves his diminished fine-motor skills, the result of a herniated disk that went undiscovered for two years in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Carr, 28, of Maryland, a sergeant with the Army Reserve's 160th Military Police Battalion, injured his back in 2007 during Humvee rollover training. Disks pinched muscle nerves in his spine but not his pain nerves. He never knew he was injured.

His left hip flexor and shoulder weakened to the point where he could barely use them.

But he's not thinking of it now. Not the time away from his family, not the surgeries or the healing he has yet to do.

Not on this still morning on the water.

That's precisely the mission of Project Healing Waters.

And it's why Carr fishes: "Being out on the water, it's quiet. The serenity, the peacefulness it makes you forget everything. It's one of the few times you actually have a clear mind."

New approach

David Folkerts didn't want to try fly fishing. His left hand barely worked. He suffered permanent nerve damage from the shrapnel that tore through his arm in Baghdad, barely missing arteries that, if severed, would have killed him.

Lying around Washington, D.C.'s Walter Reed Army Medical Center in April 2005, fly fishing seemed like another thing Folkerts' dead arm wouldn't let him do.

"That sounds complicated. Why would I want to do that and feel defeated afterward?" he told a friend who had been hounding him to try a new program Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.

Retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson started the program in 2004 after he went to Walter Reed for a cancer surgery. He watched soldiers struggle through their recoveries.

So the avid outdoorsman recruited some friends and started offering fly-tying classes. In the spring and summer, they organized trips to fishing spots around Washington. Nicholson knew nature could heal the spirit and the body.

Eventually, Folkerts decided to try. He practiced a few casts and caught fish on his first trip, despite his mangled arm.

Folkerts is now a full-time Healing Waters program manager. He organized the trip to fish the North Platte River in Casper, and joined eight other veterans and active-duty soldiers.

"It's just the attitude change and the outlook and perspective. Not just my own life, but for the guys I've met," Folkerts said.

"Honestly, what we really do is help bring soldiers and veterans together as a group. We talk about things that we would normally not talk about with other people. And then we throw fly fishing in with that."

An escape

The blackout lasted two months. And though people tell Dale Cherney that he was fully functioning during that time talking, eating, trying to get better he has no recollection of it.

The blast that took his left leg and left eye? That he remembers.

He remembers the siren, thinking it was another drill. He thinks he saw a flash of light. He remembers being wheeled down a long hallway and the sound of helicopter blades. Doctors preparing to operate, a priest standing at his bed. The next thing he remembers is waking up at Walter Reed, two months later.

Cherney, 44, of Wisconsin, was on his third tour in Iraq on Oct. 10, 2007, as a volunteer with the Army Reserve. He was stationed at Camp Liberty in Baghdad as a finance officer. A paper pusher.

Then the rockets came. The blasts injured 38 and killed two. Cherney lost his left leg below the knee and his left eye popped out of his head. Doctors removed his spleen.

He joined Project Healing Waters at Walter Reed though he'd never been fly fishing. He needed to get out of the hospital.

"It helps to talk to other veterans. You need to find an escape," he said.

"I'm going to do nothing but fish for a while," Cherney said, packing up his gear. He hopes to be well enough to leave Walter Reed in April, but he quit believing in schedules long ago.

Through his recovery, Carr sees his children about every five weeks. He figures he's lost about three years of his kids' lives. He wants to be well when he returns to them, so he goes to appointments and does what his doctors tell him.

And he fishes and ties flies.


Carr also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In battle, his mind dealt with what it had to at the time. Now, it's processing what it saw. Carr says he is angrier than he used to be and has a short temper.

Flashbacks come at random triggers, at the most awkward of times.

"With a full flashback, you see it. Other times, you just hear it. People screaming, the commotion. It's hard to get used to normal," he said.

Concentrating helps. Twisting bird feathers around tiny, hard-to-hold hooks helps. So does drifting on a slow-moving river, swinging a fly rod back and forth.

When he does come home, Carr's wife will go back to work to give him some time with their children a 6-year-old daughter, a 4-year-old son and a baby girl not yet 2 months old.

Since starting Project Healing Waters, he's already taken his kids fishing. He plans to take them more.

The water, he says, heals more than just his bad hip and weak shoulder.

The Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune

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