Knee-deep in a famed south central Pennsylvania creek, retired Maj. Doug Rink’s thoughts are far away from his medical appointments and daily coping with his traumatic brain injury. For several days at least, his mind is on his fly-fishing rod and trying to outsmart the trout in Spruce Creek.
“As I was walking down the path this morning, I was looking at the first ripple and sunlight reflecting off the water,” said Rink, who lost his right leg below the knee and broke 16 bones in a motorcycle accident on Aug. 13, 2007. “It was a wonderful thing for me to breathe, take it in and say that little prayer, ‘It’s good to be alive today.’”
For Rink and about 20 wounded veterans on two separate Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing events, the Spruce Creek waters are peaceful and soothing, if not exactly quiet.
“Eat that, you know you want it,” Rink says aloud to the fish. Suddenly, a 15-inch brown trout bites the beetle fly on his hook, and he starts reeling it in, only to have the fish snap off the line before guide Fred Harris can snare it into his net. The trout swims away and leaps out of the water a few feet away, seemingly teasing Rink like his good-natured hecklers behind him on the bank. Ted Cryblskey, a Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Project Healing Waters volunteer, and Steve Laabs, a member of the program’s board of trustees, didn’t know their now-favorite Air Force fisherman prior to this trip, but they’re giving him the business like they’re lifelong friends.
“That must have been an Air Force fly,” Cryblskey calls from the other side of the creek after the fish escaped Rink’s line.
“This is part of the fun,” Rink said after pointing out he outshot his Army and Marine Corps competitors the previous day in skeet shooting. “The experience isn’t about catching every fish. I enjoy the miscues and misfires as much, if not more, than catching fish and getting them into the net. I’ve caught tons of fish. It’s the oddities that you remember. For a lot of us who’ve had traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s going to this cool place that takes you away from all of the pain and allows you to be in the moment, whether you’re catching fish or not.”
On the other side of Spruce Creek, a vacation fishing spot for former President Jimmy Carter since he was in office, 66-year-old William D. Trohman’s also enjoying his day on the water with his guide, Charlie Iddings. Iddings, who was also Trohman’s guide at Spruce Creek last year, points to a ripple on the water. “That’s the one that’s feeding,” Iddings tells him. “Make a good cast right off the bank.”
A few minutes later, Trohman reels in a small brown trout. After holding him on his palm for a few seconds, he releases him back into the creek, the same fortunate fate of all fish caught at Project Healing Waters events. He’d already caught six, including three that morning.
“(Fly fisherman and artist) Lee Wulff said, ‘Game fish are too valuable to only be caught once,’” Trohman said. “The fish are immaterial. When you have that fly in the water, whether you’re watching the dry fly float down or the strike indicator float down, your sole attention is on that inanimate object in the water. It’s peaceful and relaxing. When you catch a fish, that’s a bonus.”
Trohman served from 1966 to 1971 and worked in construction and maintenance for 35 years. In his lifetime, he’s sustained two knee injuries, two crushed vertebras, two torn rotator cuffs and had surgery on both hands. He met the program’s regional coordinator, Ray Markiewicz, through a fly-tying and casting course near his home in Derby, N.Y., and came to his first Project Healing Waters event last year as a self-professed alcoholic.
“Fly-fishing and Ray Markiewicz saved my life,” Trohman said. “I haven’t had a drink since Oct. 10, 2010.”
Rink and Trohman are not only Project Healing Waters participants, but also volunteers who teach other veterans how to fly fish and tie flies. Rink also teaches a rod-building class at Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune, N.C., and builds fishing rods and donates many of them to the program for other veterans.
Project Healing Waters began at Walter Reed in 2005, although it wasn’t named until the following year, and now has 157 programs in 47 states. In 2012, more than 4,000 disabled veterans and recovering service members participated in activities like fly-fishing events, instruction, fly-tying classes, fly-casting workshops and rod building, said David Folkerts, Project Healing Waters chief operations officer.
“We’ve had participants themselves tell us personally, and others have written us by letter or email to tell us how the program changed their lives, and they’re no longer in the dark place they were,” Folkerts said. “Some say this program saved their lives, and we also have heard from family members and spouses who say the program helped save their marriage. Their husband or wife was in so deep of a dark place, but Project Healing Waters totally changed their outlook.”
The impact the program varies, depending on the veterans’ injuries and where they are in their rehabilitation. Probably the most dramatic example was a Soldier who came to Spruce Creek in 2011 after he was wounded in Iraq. His marriage was falling apart, he was severely depressed and was in the hospital after a suicide attempt. The Soldier’s doctor told him he wouldn’t release him until he found a hobby, so he picked Project Healing Waters, said Dave Miknis, event organizer for the program sponsored by Dominion Energy Solutions.
“I guided him that first year and taught him to fly fish, and we talked a lot,” Miknis said. “In three days of being around other veterans, he began opening up and talking, and with the camaraderie with the guides, he was a new man. It sounds like a fairy tale, but he went back to New York, enrolled in college, got his marriage back together and is now even volunteering with other veterans, teaching them how to fly fish.”
When Rink fishes, he carries two walking canes because he sometimes has problems maintaining his balance in slippery conditions or when the water is murky or fast-moving. He also now has a foot that was specially designed for fishing by his prosthetist, Louise Hassinger of Walter Reed’s amputee center.
Rink drove to Pennsylvania with retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Horsley and Army Spec. Coy Estes from Fort Bragg, N.C. Even though he caught four fish, including a 20-inch brown trout ̶ his largest brook trout yet, he was happier for his two riding companions after they snared the two largest catches of the event.
“I’ve never been on a Project Healing Waters event where I haven’t seen big smiles on everybody at the end of the day,” said Rink, a lifelong fly fisherman who’s been participating in Project Healing Waters trips since his first one in Beaver Creek, Md., in 2010. “That’s truly the healing in Project Healing Waters. That’s part of the magic that works out here. Yeah, it’s the fishing, but so much more – the relationships, distractions and sitting around the campfire with the guys.”
Midway through his last day at Spruce Creek, Rink waded further into the water and cast in a spot where a 15-inch brown trout leapt above the water a few feet away. Within seconds, the trout also escaped his line.
“I have grandkids. They like to reel it in when they fish,” Cryblskey told him.
“It wasn’t big enough,” Rink retorted. “I’m saving for the trophy fish.”
A week after returning home to North Carolina, Rink was back in his regular routine, including his next medical appointment to have the sockets adjusted in his artificial limb at Walter Reed. However, his day at Spruce Creek was still with him, too, as he shared photos of the fish he caught with his prosthetist.
“The wonderful times with these trips, they’re with you forever,” Rink said. “It’s wonderful to be in the moment and then go back to that special place when you need to. It keeps me away from the “three P’s:” pain, pills and pressure. When I’m walking with crutches again and feeling sorry for myself because it hurts, I can close my eyes and go back to this stream. I can tell myself that I can get through this and get to another time when I can be on the next stream.”
One of those moments was another fish he didn’t catch in the final minutes of his last day in Spruce Creek. Rink’s rod bent as another large trout bit on his line. As he started reeling it in, he began to loudly sing, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder.”
Even though the fish escaped his net again, Rink left the creek laughing.
“That’s why they call it fishing instead of catching, as I’ve proven today,” he said. “You can do everything right, but the fish get a vote and have a better than 50 percent chance of you not getting them into the net. That’s the lure, the catch, the one more cast and telling yourself, ‘I bet I can get him this time.’”