Wounded veterans learn fly-fishing on Little Lehigh Creek

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”This helps me settle down after being over there and being on guard all the time,” said Green, who returned in November from Iraq, his second deployment in five years.By Marion Callahan | OF THE MORNING CALL

Army Sgt. 1st Class Lenny Green stood along the Little Lehigh Creek drawing back his fishing rod, eager to hook the brown trout lurking beneath a rock.

His long, looping casts extended out into a narrow stretch of the creek, dropping a woolly bugger fly into the slow-moving current. As the fly floated downstream, he watched it intently and turned to two anglers beside him for some guidance.

”Leave it there, just let it drift,” said Paul Dickes, nodding approvingly at Green. ”There you go.”

     

Green’s first try at fly-fishing Saturday morning was more than just therapy for his hand, which was injured in Afghanistan during a mortar attack on his base.

”This helps me settle down after being over there and being on guard all the time,” said Green, who returned in November from Iraq, his second deployment in five years.

About a dozen injured veterans stood along the muddy banks of the Little Lehigh on Saturday, learning the graceful art of fly-fishing, relaxing with family and relating with veterans who know the hardships that come with healing. The Hokendauqua Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council organized the outing to help veterans with physical or emotional injuries suffered in war.

”It’s a relaxing way to turn the world off,” said Dickes, of Jim Thorpe, who was a merchant mariner in World War II and volunteered to teach other veterans to fish.

The fly-fishing event was a local extension of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc., a national program started by Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson, an avid fly-fisherman, who worked with injured service members at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He believed fishing would be therapeutic for wounded members of the military.

”We often hear about the phone cards, yellow ribbons and forms of support, but how often do you hear about support at the back end of war after they take off that uniform?” asked Richard Hudzinski, chairman of the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council.

Since 2005, Healing Waters has grown to more than 50 locations across the country. Philip Hublitz, who heads the local chapter, is working with area hospitals, military groups, participants and volunteers to plan more fishing outings and classes.

”We have these young men and women who have put their lives on the line for the rest of us and we think it’s important to reach out and help them,” Hublitz said. ”A lot of these vets come back from war and hide themselves — especially the ones who’ve been injured. Yet they are the people who defend this country.”

Hublitz said Healing Waters focuses on both recreation and recovery, teaching injured veterans basic fly-fishing, fly-casting and fly-tying. He said the motions of fly-fishing help veterans relearn motor skills, repair damaged muscles and improve balance and mobility.

Green is recovering from an injury that left his hand numb. He was one of two active duty soldiers at the event from the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit, a program aimed at helping injured soldiers adjust to civilian life.

”You come back and you don’t want to be bothered,” said Green, 45, of Harrisburg, who also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. ”Basically, your job is to get better and make all your doctor appointments, but it’s hard.”

Getting out of hospitals and into nature helps, Green said. He didn’t catch a fish, but he learned to cast and got a chance to share his experiences at war and at home with other veterans.

”Any veteran who has been through this understands things more than anyone else,” Green said. ”They’re walking history books, and they know what you’re going through.”

Michael Alley, 49, of Allentown, who served in Desert Storm, said veterans like to stick together.

”When we’re around each other, we feel more normal,” he said. ”It’s easier to talk and open up about experiences.”

George Metro of Bethlehem, who spent 13 months in Vietnam, said the fishing event gave injured veterans a chance to step out of their routines and socialize.

”It’s easy when you return from war to isolate yourself. This gets you off the couch, so you’re not drinking or drugging or staying at home feeling sorry for yourself. It gets you to socialize with people who understand you and you’re spending time in a healthy, natural environment.”

Joe Quezada, 33, of Johnstown, Cambria County, was touched by the support network that surrounded him Saturday.

Quezada, who suffered a spinal injury in Iraq, said he feels lucky that local military volunteer groups recognize that service members still need support, long after they return from war.

”These groups have really embraced us, and I like to support them because they are supporting us,” Quezada said. ”Just being outdoors is therapeutic, but I’m enjoying the camaraderie, too. These guys are life-long experts — and soon it will be our turn to take over and provide the support to those coming home from war.”

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