Fort Drum Blizzard, 13 November 2008
Soldiers, veterans experience fly fishing on Salmon River
By Jessica Trump Burt, Contributor
ALTMAR – More than a dozen wounded Soldiers and veterans recently lined up along the Salmon River standing below a “Support Our Troops” sign and an American flag, waiting for their photo to be taken.
“We have American heroes fishing in our backyard, and they think we’re doing them a favor?” was the question Fran Verdoliva, Salmon River Program coordinator for New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, asked fishing guides and volunteers who were gathered nearby.
The event was central New York’s inaugural Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program at the NYS Salmon River Fish Hatchery in Oswego County. It was part of a nationwide project designed to help rehabilitate disabled active-duty military personnel and veterans through fly fishing and fly tying activities.
Veterans and wounded Soldiers from Warrior Transition Units in the northeast region of the United States – Fort Drum; Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; Fort Belvoir, Va.; and the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Batavia – came to the Salmon River for a fly fishing adventure. They stayed for three days and two nights at the Salmon Hills Outdoor Adventure Center in Redfield and fly fished for salmon on the world-famous river.
“Fly fishing is a spiritual experience for these Soldiers,” said Ray Markiewicz, northeast coordinator of Project Healing Waters. “Soldiers aren’t thinking about what they’ve been through when they’re on the water.”
Fred Kuepper, instructor, river guide and member of several Oswego County conservation organizations, volunteered to work with Verdoliva to organize the event. Other volunteers who helped guide along the river were David Agnes, Charlie Blaas, Don Kennedy, Wayne Sherwood, Bett Hopkins, Paul Miller, Ron Nix, Jim Kelso and Staff Sgt. Robert Fleming, a U.S. Army currently stationed at Fort Drum.
“I have been fishing the Salmon River for many years,” Fleming explained. “It’s beautiful and peaceful, and knowing that every day you or your clients are on the water, that a state or world record could be broken, is an opportunity that not many anglers have.”
“As a guide,” he added, “I mainly bring Fort Drum Soldiers to the river for fishing trips. When I heard about Project Healing Waters, I jumped at the chance to help out my fellow Soldiers.”
“The program is very therapeutic because of the relationships that are built,” added retired Capt. David Folkerts, program manager of Project Healing Waters. “Many of the Soldiers have post-traumatic stress, and they get to share an enjoyable experience with other people who have gone through the same thing.”
The Salmon River trip was suggested to Folkerts by Iraq War veteran Lt. Col. Ed LaChanse. LaChanse grew up in Syracuse, his parents own a camp on Sandy Pond on Lake Ontario and his grandfather took him fishing on the Salmon River as a boy.
“It helps us to know that we have direct support from our home towns,” LaChanse said. “It shows that there are Americans who care (about) the sacrifices (that) we have endured, and they are willing to assist us in getting through the simple days, like landing a big one on the Salmon River. Project Healing Waters helps us put our past behind us so we can move on with life.”
In addition to Verdoliva, fish hatchery manager Andy Gruelich and staff, Matt Dorrett and Woody Erickson from the DEC, several others donated their time and resources to make Soldiers and veterans feel welcome. They include Hans Karlsen, owner of Salmon Hills Outdoor Adventure Center; Steve Murphy of Brookfield Power; and Larry Whaley, Carl Steele and other volunteers from the Pulaski American Legion. Bett Hopkins, a mentor and guide, designed and provided banners, bumper stickers, hats and fly boxes, each filled with 12 flies tied by local anglers, for all of the Soldiers.
Project Healing Waters started when retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson met some fellow wounded Soldiers and took them fishing. There are now more than 45 programs in the United States.
“When we aren’t on fly fishing trips, we go to hospitals to teach fly casting and fly tying,” Markiewicz said.
Kuepper shares a memorable story about his experience with a Soldier on the Salmon River.
“Ceamus McDermott fought a fish harder than I’d ever seen anybody fight one,” he said. “He had so much determination and focus; it was a battle between him and the fish. The fish swam to a part of the river that was almost impossible to get it back from, and I was telling him we may have to give up. But Ceamus was determined. He didn’t give up. He fought that fish right back to his feet. Ceamus won that battle.”
Kuepper has now started the Oswego County Chapter of Project Healing Waters, and he and a staff of volunteers will work closely with the Oswego VA Outpatient Clinic, the Syracuse VA Medical Center and the Watertown Vet Center.
“The programs will take place in phases,” Kuepper explained. “First, we will find six to 12 veterans or Soldiers at a time who are interested in the program by showing them videos and meeting at the local medical centers. Then we will begin teaching them about the equipment and fly tying and casting. Finally, they will be ready for an outing.
“I volunteered to become the Oswego County Chapter coordinator because I’ve always had a special place in my heart for our vets,” he added. “Project Healing Waters is a win-win situation for everyone. The biggest winners are the veterans and Soldiers, then the people and community who volunteer their time and support the program.”
Kuepper is also in the beginning stages of helping to start a Fort Drum area chapter.
“For all new chapters, we are dependent on donations, as PHW is a nonprofit organization. For outings and events, we will need assistance with donated lodging, meals, equipment, locations and of course … monetary donations,” Kuepper said. “We’ve already had a huge outpouring of support. Local charter captains have offered their services, and members of the Eastern Lake Ontario Salmon and Trout Association have been very supportive. But we can always use more.”
Anyone interested in volunteering or donating may contact Kuepper at 963-4095 or by e-mail at FredKuepper@aol.com. Individuals also may donate specifically to the Oswego County Chapter by sending a check to the head office at Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc., P.O. Box 695, LaPlata, MD 20646 and writing “Oswego County Chapter” on the memo line.
For more information on Project Healing Waters, visit the web site at www.projecthealingwaters.org.