The Marshall Plan: Healing the wounds of war with fly fishing

There is a moment when the sweep of a cast drops a fly upon the surface tension of the waterâ??thatâ??s when time, tide or the gentle sounds of a moving river refocus the mind on the present.

Itâ??s been said that catching fish is almost secondary to the magic motions of fly­-fishing.

In the gentle rise and fall of a cast, mind and body can begin to heal from the trauma of war­­­ even if itâ??s only for a moment, an hour or a day.

Last Saturday, dozens of fly­tiers gathered inside the expansive main hall of the National Museum of the Marine Corps for the 2nd Annual Fly­-Tying Marathon held to benefit Project Healing Waters.

Area fisherman and fly­tiers sat at tables and shared stories while tying lures. As the feathers were cut, shaped and tied to hooks the volunteers were surrounded by hundreds of years of Marine Corps history. A Corsair, Phantom and WWI biplane are suspended overhead and famous quotes about the fighting spirit of the Marine Corps carved in stone surround the tables of busy fly­-tiers.

A radiant sun created beams of light through the museumâ??s windows casting a perfect setting

for a noble mission. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) Programs assist wounded and

disabled service members, active or retired, in finding that â??new normalâ? through fly­fishing, fly-
tying and rod building, according to the organizationâ??s mission.

The event created thousands of fly lures to distribute to wounded and disabled service members across the nation.

â??This is an event that I wouldnâ??t have missed for the world. Iâ??m extremely proud to coordinate this event,â? said Chris Thompson, a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant from Swansboro, North Carolina and the eventâ??s coordinator for Project Healing Waters. â??All of the flies tied today are separated and sent to our national headquarters for events held across the country. Many are sent to programs that are just getting started. We donâ??t tell fly­tiers what to tie. Our volunteers create all types of flies from bass bugs to saltwater streamers.â?

The event, now in its second year at the museum, is a labor of love for Thompson, who originally joined PHW with the Quantico-­based program. Saturdayâ??s event was a joint operation between PHWâ??s Quantico and Fort Belvoir-based programs.

â??They work closely together. The two programs are close in proximity. I was one of the founders of the PHW program here in Quanticoâ??we started it about four years ago,â? said Thompson. â??The concept of the fly­tying marathon was not unique. Last year, the idea of bringing this event back to this area came to mind and then I volunteered to be the event coordinator. Instantly, this venue came to mind.â?

When Thompson approached the museum and spoke with Public Affairs Chief, Gwenn Adams, it all came together. Since this meeting, the museum and its staff have become essential partners in hosting the event.

â??The museum really helps us and after last year, they immediately asked us back,â? added Thompson. â??The museum is a great place that captures the essence of our mission. It was the only place that came to mind. Even the lighting is ideal.â?

The use of social media allowed the event to grow within fly­fishing and military communities.

â??Last year we didnâ??t have quite as many people as we did today but we still exceeded 1,000 flies maybe even 1,200 flies,â? Thompson said. â??This year 1,445 were tied. We have volunteers that mail their flies too. Much of the planning was done with emails. Iâ??m always proud to make the journey here.â?

Volunteers for the organization have many reasons for their time and dedicationâ??each is a unique story. A Vietnam veteran sits alongside a veteran from the Iraq War. Just a few feet away a combat­-wounded Marine smiled as he tied a fly for the very first time.

â??I was exposed to PHW by a dear friend Rick Pope, who is the president of Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO), a rod and reel manufacturer. I met Rick at one of the two ­fly events and I saw the incredible things PHW accomplishes firsthand,â? said Thompson.

A love of the outdoors is an essential element in the healing process. Some wounded warriors feared that their joy for the outdoors could never be regained after suffering physical and mental wounds.

â??I will fish for anything that takes a hook, but I like saltwater fishing,â? said Thompson. â??We have volunteer guides at our fishing events but itâ??s not really a guide relationship. Sure weâ??ll help you obtain the gear, help you tie flies to the line, give you casting advice, but really itâ??s about listening and being a buddy. Our volunteer guides donâ??t hover over you all the time.â?

â??It is something that you canâ??t really appreciate until youâ??ve experienced an event. There are guys whose hands shake so badly or have lost both legs­­­but when they get back on the water they realize that they can still enjoy the outdoors again,â? he added.

To see wounded and disabled service members transcending their wounds and sharing time fishing is as magic as seeing a fish strike a fly.

â??When they are fishing, tying a fly or building a rod they are not thinking about injuries or warâ??thatâ??s the essence of it,â? Thompson added.

Marshall Conner is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at kelpiescot@gmail.com