Fly fishing programs become therapy for soldiers and veterans recovering from trauma

On a sunny day in 2017, Luke Cureton was on a lake in Montana.

He had been medically withdrawn from the army. A roadside bomb injured him on his second tour of Iraq, he said. He suffered from PTSD, which is part of why he was fly fishing in Montana. He threw an imitation fly and tried to make it appetizing. Then he took a bite.

“Catching this fish was almost like hanging on to my fight,” he said. “They introduced me to the concept here of ‘catch and release.’ And once I caught that fish – once I caught that wrestling and released it – it was a while. very moving for me, from that moment i got addicted to fly fishing.

Cureton was there at the invitation of Warriors and Quiet Waters. The Bozeman-based non-profit group brings veterans of the post 9/11 fighting to Montana, where they have an immersive fly-fishing experience with their family and fellow veterinarians.

It is one of the many organizations that bring together members of the military community for recreational therapy. Some participants say the experience has changed their lives.

Programs are growing, although data is scarce

It is important to know that fly fishing is hard. When he volunteered with Warriors and Quiet Waters, Army veteran Larry Weidinger remembers seeing how easy the Guides made it. Then he tried it out for himself.

“I had knots all day,” he said.

But fly fishing can also be calming, grounded, and even deep.

“Every time the line hits the water it’s like a lifelong sense of hope,” Army veteran Sean Gifford said. “You learn entomology and you see how everything is connected in an ecosystem. And you are only part of it.

Another organization, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, reported thousands of participants in 2020. It partners with the Department of Veterans Affairs and military health facilities, as well as volunteers across the country. The group said its programs attract more participants each year.

But research on the therapeutic value of programs is still quite scarce. When Dr Justin Baker was a Navy psychologist, patients sometimes requested referral to a recreational therapy program. He would say, “Yeah, go ahead. It won’t hurt.

Today, Baker is a clinical psychologist with the Ohio State University Veterans Suicide and Injury Reduction Initiative. In part, he’s studying how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

In sessions with patients, he targets “sticking points”, beliefs about a traumatic event that make it difficult to mourn or continue with life.

Some patients, he said, are convinced that “if I had done something different my boyfriend wouldn’t have died.” He works with them to “build a case” against this story, until it turns into something like, “I did all I could do, and my boyfriend is still dead.

Baker typically performs targeted clinical therapies – “benchmark” treatments with names like “cognitive processing therapy”. But he also studied alternative treatments.

“The evidence doesn’t seem to be mounting that these alternative treatments are better than the gold standard,” he said. “We still haven’t got past that.”

But, he added, that “doesn’t mean that alternative treatments aren’t helpful.”

Baker said mindfulness – the kind you might get from fly fishing – can be important to the healing process. And he said that for those who are less inclined to traditional clinical treatment, an alternative treatment is a great place to start.

“There is enough trauma for all of us to help out, isn’t there?” We are all playing our part, ”said Baker.

The plot of the film looks like real life

One day at the Warriors and Quiet Waters ranch outside of Bozeman, people were throwing fly lines into a pond. Many were veterans. It was a smoky day – because of the western forest fires.

Then someone shouted, “OK, that’s a cut! ”

It was a shoot for an independent film called “Mending the Line”, about a young Marine who is injured in Afghanistan, loses two men and is consumed with guilt. At a facility in Montana, Virginia, he meets an older Vietnam veteran and the two connect through fly fishing.

Warriors and Quiet Waters loaned their ranch for the shoot. Luke Cureton – the Iraq veteran – was on set. He said he hates the main character, Colter, who reminds him of himself.

He said Colter “carries a lot of guilt from his previous combat experience. And he carries that back to the real world. And he feels like he doesn’t deserve to live right now. … It’s a struggle that I feel.

In the film, Colter, the character, ends up working at Warriors and Quiet Waters. It’s also like Cureton, who is now a volunteer, accompanying other fly fishing veterans. He said watching other people go through the program helped him heal too.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

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