By Jessica McGlothlin Explorebigsky.com Contributor
CRAIG – It’s no secret that fly fishing can be relaxing, even therapeutic.
For U.S. military veterans coming home from deployment abroad, the simple act of casting a rod or floating down a river takes on a different degree of significance. It’s a way for them to step back into the their lives, to slow down, to process.
Montana Project Healing Waters’ mission is ongoing: to help active duty military personnel and veterans learn the healing qualities of fly fishing. According to the organization, fly fishing allows a veteran to focus concentration on a particular task at hand – specifically, landing a fish.
MtPHW uses angling, fly-tying classes, outings and education for conservation, restoration and improvements to Montana fisheries and aquatic habitats to aid veterans in returning to civilian life.
One of the organization’s programs involves working with patients of the Trauma Center at Fort Harrison Veterans Hospital in Helena. Veterans spend several weeks working with experienced instructors who teach fly tying, casting and fishing techniques, as well as basic entomology, assuring a thorough, river-wise education. Sessions culminate on the neighboring Missouri River, where, besides fishing, instructors cover drift boat safety and operation.
There are few things more relaxing than a day floating a Montana river, and Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig is making an effort to encourage easy drift-boat access for veterans and servicemen and women. With aid from MtPHW and a few private parties, the shop keeps two drift boats reserved strictly for military use. The boats are free to rent, and are becoming rapidly popular as awareness is raised.
MtPHW is a chapter of parent organization Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. With affiliate programs in Canada and Australia, PHWFF has divided its U.S. service areas into 14 different regions. These are currently home to 154 programs – covering 47 states – and are associated with Federation of Fly Fishers clubs and Trout Unlimited Chapters, as well as independent clubs.
Montana has two programs now, one in Helena, hosted through the Veteran’s Association Montana Health Care System, and one in Great Falls, through Bozeman-based Eagle Mount, a nonprofit organization specializing in bringing therapeutic and recreational activities to those with disabilities and young people with cancer, according to its website.
PHWFF was founded in 2005, serving wounded military service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., as they returned from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In eight years, the organization has seen remarkable growth, expanding across the country and growing a volunteer force eager to share their rivers and rods with veterans. The group holds 501(c)(3) status and receives no government funding, instead counting on tax-deductible, charitable donations and a fleet of volunteers.
Nearly 2,300 volunteers donated more than 122,000 hours to the effort in 2012. This time and dedication enabled more than 4,000 recovering warriors and disabled veterans to participate in the program.