The Healing Waters

December 2023
Written By: 
Harold Rohrback
Photographs by: 
Harold Rohrback

Program is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans and injured military members through the relaxing art of fly fishing

For anyone who has enjoyed the tranquility of watching a fly line gently meandering its way along a stretch of water, the calmness and sense of peace is refreshing to the mind, body and soul. The National Institute of Health and many other organizations have published study after study showing how spending time with nature benefits emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. Organizations around the country are now introducing fishing and nature-based curriculum for their employees and clients to increase happiness and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Nowhere in the world are the therapeutic benefits having more positive effects on the lives of our wounded warriors than in Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF).

The project began simply enough as a gesture of kindness at the Walter Reed National Medical Center located in Bethesda, Maryland. In 2005, a U.S. Navy Veteran, Ed Nicholson was in the hospital and had the opportunity to interact with the wounded soldiers returning from duty in Iraq. Some expressed a desire to learn about Nicholson’s passion for fly fishing. During his distinguished 30-year career, Nicholson had been stationed in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he purchased his first fly rod and was smitten by the sport. He now had an opportunity to share his knowledge with others and soon saw the therapeutic results of getting the Veterans out of the hospital and into the outdoors. Nicholson was a natural leader who built the vision into a national organization with over 200 chapters and thousands of participating disabled Veterans. The chapters are run entirely by volunteers and are designed to be an ongoing, long-term support system for any disabled Veteran or injured military member at no cost. 

“The serenity and sense of calm cannot be overstated when it comes to fly fishing. I found a new sense of peace in the water that I had given up years ago. It has been a journey of healing and rediscovery with this new passion of fly fishing. Since one of Project Healing Waters team members introduced me into fly fishing earlier this summer, I have been out on the water nearly every single day. I will forever be grateful for finding this new passion” –Army Veteran

The program itself incorporates rod building, fly tying, fly casting and actual fly fishing for the participants. Any level of experience or knowledge is made to feel comfortable, from the complete beginner to the seasoned professional. Each step of the way is an opportunity to foster a sense of camaraderie and build relationships. It’s about the healing journey, not just fishing. The members who were once being mentored eventually become the mentors. There are only a handful of requirements for starting a chapter. First, it must be hosted by a Veterans Administration facility with available space to meet and hold activities. Second, it must have a group of disabled Veterans or injured military members willing to participate. Third, it must have a fly fishing club or group of volunteers willing to commit and organize the program. No two chapters are the same, with some meeting every week while others meet every other week. Fly tying and rod building are usually done at the Veterans Administration while fly casting and fishing are outdoor activities held at a variety of locations. Patience is paramount and nobody is in a hurry. 

Patience and serenity are two words that immediately come to mind when speaking about Walter Shockley. Schockley is retired Army who served in Europe and Vietnam and now resides in Georgetown. Being an avid fly fisherman, he recognized the need for a PHWFF chapter in the Charleston, SC area and reached out to the organization. The requirements were all readily available except for the fly fishing club sponsorship. A meeting was called to create The Charleston Anglers Club where a set of by-laws were established by Shockley and volunteers William Max Hearn, Hayward Wall and Mo Artero and thus the chapter was born. Shockley currently heads up both the Charleston and Market Common meeting places. The Market Common group meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at the Veterans Administration Center and has about eight active members and growing, while the original Charleston group meets at the Veterans Administration Hospital on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. 

The meeting agenda is constantly changing to fit the needs of the group. Each member builds their own rod and has the option to enter it into the nationwide competition of PHWFF. Each member also ties their own flies and has the option to enter them in the nationwide competition of PHWFF. Fly casting is taught to each member and again they have the option to enter into a nationwide competition of PHWFF. There are beginner, intermediate and advanced categories for each competition so that everyone has a chance from beginner to expert. Of course, the groups also have regularly scheduled fishing trips to include both freshwater and saltwater from shore and boats.

This year the local group had three members win nationally in the fly tying competition. 

Taking third place in the beginner category was Shane Hallowell with his fly “Cupsuptic.”

“I have only been involved with Project Healing Waters for a short period, but what I like most is the camaraderie and laughter that you hear while together,” says Hallowell. 

Winning 1st place in the intermediate category is Mark Hallowell, father of Shane and tyer of “Light Spruce.”

“I love the outdoors and the peace it brings” says the elder Hallowell.

Holding third place in the advanced category is Darrell Olson with “The Cracker.” He says “The camaraderie that is developed has led to some great friendships that have transitioned to the point where we meet-up to go fishing locally and even some trips.”

If you or someone you know could benefit from this free program, contact:
Walter Shockley
740 397-5113