FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, Huntingdon County — For Robert Gil, three days of fly-fishing last year in Spruce Creek with wounded veterans like him was enough to bring him out of his shell.
Learning to focus on something new while meeting with other people who’d had similar struggles was so compelling that it has turned around the life he said he struggled to sort out after leaving the Army in 2010.
On Monday, the 27-year-old former Army sergeant returned for another three days of fly-fishing, this year at Spruce Creek, as part of Project Healing Waters, a physical and emotional rehabilitative program for combat veterans.
“It’s just about how to breathe and focus on how to catch a fish,” said Gil, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “This specific moment changed everything. If I didn’t meet this group that kind of didn’t judge — they just understood.”
Gil was injured by a suicide bomber Dec. 1, 2006. He stopped a car full of explosives, but he was left with shrapnel in his hands, forehead and legs.
The injury ended his career in the military.
It took a doctor seeing him last year who encouraged him to give the Project Healing Waters a chance. Gil said he didn’t have a hobby at the time and wouldn’t be released from the hospital without picking one on which to focus.
So he came, but he had a tough time talking without crying, even about picking an ice cream flavor, he said.
This year, he huddled with other veterans as they stood on the banks of the creek, tossing out their lines into one of the best trout fishing spots in the country.
Gil was one of 10 veterans fly-fishing on Monday at the event, which goes on today and Wednesday. This is the second year of the event.
The veterans came from around the East Coast, and have served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Army Retired 1st Sgt. Ira Strouse, 44, of Fort Drum, N.Y., served two tours in Iraq and returned from Afghanistan in June 2011. He retired this past June.
“It’s a positive after having a lot of negatives in my life,” he said. “This puts everybody on equal footing. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done.”
For Army Staff Sgt. Sloane Peery, the most important thing about the three days in the countryside, at the foot of Tussey Mountain, is the peacefulness and quiet.
Peery, 44, of Newport News, Va., was injured in Iraq in 2011 and returned to the states around the new year.
“It helps me get my mind off things,” he said.
The event is sponsored by Dominion, an energy company, and was organized by Dominion employee Dave Miknis, 45, an avid fly-fisher who’s been at it for 35 years.
Miknis helped Gil one on one with his fishing technique and saw the life-changing effect the event had on him last year. The two stayed in touch after the last year’s event, at one point talking each day for a month.
“I always admired the veterans, I always appreciated what they did,” Miknis said.
“These guys are in Afghanistan and Iraq 365 days a year, 24/7, sacrificing everything so guys like me have the freedom to go fishing.”
After the fishing event is over, Gil will fly to Kodiak, Alaska, to share his story with other wounded veterans.
“That’s just my life,” he said.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT