The slow cast and shimmering ripple of a fly-fishing line is therapeutic.
Project Healing Waters believes in that philosophy. The national organization’s mission is to offer emotional and physical rehabilitation to disabled military personnel through the sport of fly-fishing.
The program covers all 50 states, including two locations in New Mexico: Albuquerque and Taos. The state shares a region with Arizona, California and Nevada.
John McKenzie, program lead in Albuquerque and the Southwest’s regional coordinator, said veterans come to the program with “a myriad of issues,” but even when he started as a participant, no one ever pushed him to explain why he was there. It was always about recovery, not forcing an immediate recollection. Every personal journey can be told organically when the time is right.
“They get relaxed as if they know they’re talking to somebody who’s been there,” he said about participants in the program. “They’re kind of forgetting about their stuff for a little bit … which is sometimes what people need. It’s just kind of a break, and that’s why we have people stay with us.”
McKenzie has been part of Project Healing Waters for eight years. He himself is a veteran and started as a participant in the program before climbing the ranks, driven by his devotion to support his fellow military men and women.
“This organization makes sure you know how to fish and enjoy it, but it’s more about the camaraderie with the other veterans,” he said.
By using fly-fishing and all related activities, participants learn how to cope with their disabilities through mental distraction, patience and relaxation. In addition, participants are able to bond and find comfort in others who are in identical situations.
Guides and volunteers teach veterans the entire process of fly-fishing, each step serving a healing purpose. Veterans learn how to build their own rods, tie their own flies, how to correctly cast and head out to the water to fly-fish.
“It’s almost meditative,” McKenzie said, reflecting on his own experience. “I was really proud when I got my first fish on my own rod, my own fly. … It gives you a sense of satisfaction.”
McKenzie knew he wanted to help after benefiting from the program. The organization thrives off the nature of volunteers who are patient and supportive. Many volunteers are fly-fishing guides themselves, but no experience is necessary, for there are other roles people can claim.
Doc Thompson is the program lead in Taos. Though he didn’t serve in the military, his lifelong experience as a fisherman and his dedication to supporting his community through his personal talents has helped many disabled military members ease their mental and physical struggles.
“It helps develop patience, and that kind of calming factor,” Thompson said of fly-fishing. “A lot of fly-fishing requires pretty pinpoint focused concentration … it engages both the brain and hand-eye coordination. … It kind of helps to reset your mind.”
The Taos program services the rural north of New Mexico where there are many opportunities to get out on the water and fish, even if some of the people are fairly new to the sport, Thompson explained.
Though each participant has a different experience, Thompson said most benefit from the program, and fly-fishing allows some people to feel more normal, escape from what they deal with and be with others who have relatable stories.
“We have a handful of our participants that reference without the program, they would still be lost in life,” Thompson said.
The unexpected battle disabled military personnel must face beyond service is trying, but there are others in search of the same support. Project Healing Waters aims to provide another line to recovery.