By Laurie Hindman
Town Hall employee Karen Shaw-Lafferty and her husband Matt Lafferty have been teaching fly-fishing for almost 20 years. They well know the pleasure and peacefulness that casting a line in a tumbling river, sparkling with Colorado sunshine, can bring. On Saturday, they welcomed 10 soldiers and veterans from different areas in the United States and in various stages of recuperation from both physical and emotional wounds and trauma, to family property along the Big Thompson for a day of fly-fishing, home cooked food in the shade of towering cottonwood trees, and camaraderie. The soldiers, known as “recovering warriors,” were flown to Colorado, their flight and accommodations paid for by Project Healing Waters.
Shaw-Lafferty said she first heard of the program last year at a fly-fishing show where she and her husband were speakers. Shaw-Lafferty said they were immediately interested. “We decided this was something we could do. We had the expertise and it was a way to do our part.” Shaw-Lafferty and her husband organized the first Loveland event last November and again this weekend, pairing each soldier with a fly fishing guide. They enlisted the help of 18 volunteers who pitched in together to provide a lunchtime barbeque. Matt Lafferty’s parents and their neighbors offered their land along the river for the event.
Retired Navy Captain, Ed Nicholson, dreamed up the program in 2004, while recuperating from an operation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. Nicholson observed the soldiers suffering from both physical and emotional wounds with little to do while they recuperated. An avid fly fisherman, he engaged a couple fellow patients in fly tying and casting lessons and Project Healing Waters was born. The Federation of Fly Fishermen and the National Chapter of Trout Unlimited willingly jumped on board and 16 chapters of the program were quickly established. Fly fishing clubs and tackle shops across the country have donated funds and equipment to keep the program running and what started with one veteran’s effort now has more than 70 chapters throughout the United States.
“Nicholson looked at these soldiers recuperating and said, ‘maybe they’d like to go fishing,” explained Gordy Rothoff, a Project Healing Waters volunteer and self-described fly fishing fanatic. He heard about the program and immediately volunteered. “I owe,” said Rothoff simply. “Fly fishing is something I can teach so it is a way I can give back.” Rothoff is from Fort Carson and runs the Fort Carson chapter with three other volunteers.
“Being at the river turns a lot of them around,” said Rothoff. “It’s all a part of the recuperating process. You get out in outdoors in the peace and quiet, away from the base, the Army, the hospital and some of the hurt gets better.”
Rothoff said there is an outreach program on the Fort Carson base where soldiers in the Warrior Transition Units are biding time while recuperating. Rothoff and others try to contact soldiers who may be interested in the project.
“They don’t always give them enough to do,” said Rothoff. “With idle hands, they just go into themselves. I always think, how many of them are in there that we don’t reach?” Rothoff said today’s event was one of the best he has seen. “Karen is a real sweetheart. She does an amazing job.”
“It’s been great,” said Shaw-Lafferty. “A perfect day.” Shaw-Lafferty said she was thrilled that they were able to give each participant their own fly rod and reel, donations from different vendors. Shaw-Lafferty said at lunch one soldier removed his waders and then proceeded to remove his artificial leg as well. “It was bothering him,” said Shaw-Lafferty. “But this is what these guys do. They continue on with life as best they can. I am just in awe of these guys.” She said the day was filled with joking, laughter, sharing, and of course, catching big fish. “Everybody caught fish. They had a ball.”
Sergeant Aaron Gulick, a Denver resident, is recovering from injuries he sustained in this third tour in Afghanistan. He spent a year recuperating in Fort Bragg when a Sergeant Major contacted him about Project Healing Waters. This is his second year to participate in the program. “I love it,” said Gulik. “I got hooked, no pun intended,” he joked.
Gulik said that part of the appeal is just spending time with veterans and soldiers. “I don’t see a lot of military guys anymore,” said Gulik. “It’s nice to spend time with other soldiers, guys I have something in common with.”
Gulik agreed the river itself was healing. “It’s very peaceful. When you come back you are completely stressed out. It’s like you are walking on eggshells all the time. Being alone on the water with your guide, you don’t worry about any of your problems.”
Gulik said there are hundreds of problems that returning soldiers deal with on a daily basis. “This helps. You find some peace.”
For more information about the Healing Waters Project, go to their Web site at www.ProjectHealingWaters.org.
<p>A soldier works with a fly-fishing guide on the Big Thompson River during the Healing Waters Project event held this past Saturday. The program pairs “wounded warriors” recuperating from physical and emotional trauma with fly-fishing experts.</p>
<p>Sergeant Aaron Gulik and his 6-year old son, Hunter, sit in the dappled sunlight along the Big Thompson River. Gulik served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent one year in Fort Bragg, including five months in a wheelchair, recovering from injuries he sustained in his last tour. One of the most difficult sacrifices he made was missing four years of his son’s life.</p>