November 7, 2008
Project Healing Waters Brings Wounded Warriors to Oswego County
By Jessica Trump Burt
Public Information Officer
Oswego County Dept. of Community Development, Tourism and Planning
Soldiers and veterans from Project Healing Waters stand with volunteers to pose for a photograph. The group took part in a three-day fly fishing event on the Salmon River in Oswego County, NY.
Fred Kuepper, coordinator of the Oswego County chapter of Project Healing Waters, kneels with soldier Ceamus McDermott, while he shows off the female Chinook salmon that he caught on the Salmon River.
ALTMAR, NY -- Over a dozen wounded soldiers and veterans lined up along the Salmon River standing below a “Support Our Troops” sign and an American Flag, waiting for their photo to be taken on a sunny October afternoon.
“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 the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), asked the 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 that's 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 Hospital, Washington DC, Fort Belvoir, VA, and the VA Hospital in Batavia, NY - 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. “The 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 in organizing 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 Bob Fleming, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant 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 adds, “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,” adds David Folkerts, CPT, U.S. Army (retired), 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 Iraqi War veteran Lieutenant Colonel 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,” said LaChanse. “It shows that there are Americans who care for the sacrifices which 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 the 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 Captain Ed Nicholson met some fellow wounded soldiers and took them fishing. There are now more than 45 programs in the U.S.
“When we aren't on fly fishing trips, we go to hospitals to teach fly casting and fly tying,” said Markiewicz.
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 be working closely with the Oswego Outpatient Clinic, the Syracuse VA Medical Center and the Fort Drum Center.
Kuepper explains, “The programs will take place in phases. 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.”
He adds, “I volunteered to become the Oswego County Chapter Coordinator because I've always had a special place in my heart for our vets. 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 assisting the start of a Fort Drum area chapter, as well as sharing events with the Central NY-based Iroquois Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and the Batavia NY Chapter.
“For all new chapters, we are dependent on donations, as PHW is a non-profit organization. For outings and events, we will need assistance with donated lodging, meals, equipment, locations and of course…monetary donations.” said Kuepper. “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,” he adds, “we can always use more.”
If you are interested in volunteering or donating, please contact Kuepper at 315-963-4095 or by e-mail at . If you would like to donate specifically to the Oswego County Chapter, send your check to the Project Healing Waters head office at Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc., Post Office Box 695, LaPlata, MD 20646 and write “Oswego County Chapter” on the memo line of your check.
For more information on Project Healing Waters, visit their Web site at www.projecthealingwaters.org.
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