Healing Waters

Reprinted from Spring 2018. Story by Laurie Coyle.

The Peace and Serenity of Fly Fishing Bring Healing to Wounded Veterans

After a 30-year career in the U.S. Navy and 10 more years working for a local defense contractor, retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson of Port Tobacco was on the verge of a final retirement. He planned to go hunting and fishing and get back to the outdoor activities he had always loved.

But as he neared retirement from the civilian workforce in 2004, a diagnosis of prostate cancer brought him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he came into contact with injured servicemen and women returning from deployments. He observed firsthand the physical and emotional struggles they were facing, and he decided he wanted to help them by taking them fly fishing.

Remembering his own experiences fly fishing, Nicholson describes the sport as “mesmerizing and therapeutic,” and he hoped those wounded in combat might benefit from it.

In 2005, on the lawn at Walter Reed, Nicholson began giving fly fishing lessons to some of the recovering patients. The seemingly simple gesture became the foundation for a national non-profit organization known as Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Its mission is centered around Nicholson’s original idea – to provide rehabilitative fly fishing programs for disabled active duty personnel and disabled veterans.

As founder and president, Nicholson put his retirement plans on hold and spent the next 14 years shaping and expanding the organization, with help from other organizations and volunteers.

PHWFF began partnering with fishing and veterans organizations to establish programs in military hospitals and veterans centers in every state. Currently, there are 216 programs serving 8,500 participants nationwide.

The organization has a small staff operating out of its headquarters in La Plata and more than 3,200 volunteers across the country.

Participants meet regularly for lessons on fly tying, fly rod building and casting – activities that can help improve dexterity, balance, focus, and a number of other physical and cognitive abilities. Once the skills are perfected, fly fishing outings are planned at local rivers and streams.

Yet Nicholson, now 76, says the real success is not the actual fly fishing, but rather the emotional healing that comes with developing lasting relationships between participants and volunteers who are not only teaching fly fishing, but also providing a listening ear, advice and encouragement.

“It’s the people, the commitment, the relationships and the friendships that develop,” he says. “It creates a total environment of care and concern to get people from the dark side of the river to the light side and getting them past their demons.”

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Todd Desgrosseilliers of Newburg participated in a PHWFF program in Fort Belvoir, Va., after being wounded in Iraq and suffering complications from brain injuries. He experienced the healing powers of the program and was inspired to become a volunteer. He was later named CEO and took over as president when Nicholson retired in 2017.

Desgrosseilliers has witnessed the profound impact PHWFF is having on disabled service members, especially those who have been medically discharged and are having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life and in some cases, even contemplating suicide.

“People have told me the program has saved their life,” Desgrosseilliers says.

The success of the program has garnered Nicholson national recognition from several organizations over the years. However, Nicholson, who is now fully retired, remains humble and committed to helping his fellow veterans.

“It’s not about me, but about what we accomplish with our veterans,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”

PHWFF established a program in La Plata this year and is reaching out to the local community for participants and volunteers. No fly fishing experience is necessary, and participation is free.

For information on how to become a participant or volunteer or to make a donation, visit projecthealingwaters.org, email duke.davis@projecthealingwaters.org or call 301-830-6450.