HEALING WATERS: Fly fishing is therapy for disabled vets
A flight medic in the Air National Guard during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Ryan Whitefield of Oklahoma City witnessed and dealt with a lot of trauma. It took a personal toll.
“I don't like talking about it a whole lot,” Whitefield said. “A lot of my fellow vets and soldiers, most don't like talking about it, unless it's to another service member who has been over there and understands.”
Last weekend, Whitefield and other disabled veterans were fly fishing on the Lower Illinois River, a trip organized by Oklahoma City's Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.
“It was my first trip with them last weekend,” Whitefield said. “It was amazing just how therapeutic it was. You get around and fishing with these veterans, sharing stories. It was really nice. It was about the best kind of therapy I have been to.”
Nate Satterelli is the program lead of Oklahoma City Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, an organization that provides fly fishing opportunities to disabled veterans across the country.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers, along with military hospitals, warrior transition units and other care facilities refer patients to the fly fishing group for outdoor excursions and recreation therapy.
Project Healing Waters was founded in 2005 by a retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson to help wounded service members recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
An avid outdoorsman, Nicholson knew the fresh air and change of scenery would be a welcome relief for soldiers cooped up in a hospital. He also knew there was something therapeutic about standing in a stream of rushing water with a fly rod in your hand.
Now, there are more than 200 Project Healing Waters programs nationwide. A program in Tulsa has existed for years. Satterelli, with help from the organization's national headquarters, started one in Oklahoma City two months ago.
The Oklahoma City group meets monthly at the Patriarch in Edmond. Last week, Satterelli and other local fly fishermen volunteered their time to guide six disabled veterans on a fishing excursion to the Lower Illinois River in eastern Oklahoma, the third outing already for the new Oklahoma City program.
The group has an upcoming overnight trip planned to Roaring River in Missouri. Everything is free for disabled veterans.
Satterelli, who has been a Project Healing Waters volunteer since 2012, calls the program life-changing for some people.
“It's helped out quite a few individuals,” he said. “Guys who have been dealing with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) for years, they get a fly rod in their hand and it just all goes away. It escapes their minds. It's an unreal experience just watching that unfold.”
Project Healing Waters not only provides disabled veterans a welcome distraction from their troubles through fly fishing, but the chapters often become a support system for veterans.
“It's that kind of experience, getting guys together and getting them talking,” Satterelli said.
Satterelli was in the Air Force and stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, when he first became involved with Project Healing Waters.
“I was passionate about vets and passionate about fly fishing,” he said.
After six years in the Denver chapter, Satterelli and his wife moved to Oklahoma City to be closer to family and he plans to apply for law school. When Satterelli learned there was no Project Healing Waters program in Oklahoma City, he contacted the organization and helped form one.
The Oklahoma City program already has about 20 volunteers to teach veterans fly fishing and be their fishing guides on trips.
"I am going to encourage anybody and everybody to give it a shot," Whitefield said. "I can guarantee you they won't regret it."
For more information about Project Healing Waters, go to projecthealingwaters.org. To learn more about the Oklahoma City program, contact Satterelli at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-881-6762.