Casting for calm: Nation’s warriors get help healing along placid fishing holes

Paul Campbell stood on the sun-kissed stream bank beside willows trembling in the breeze, a long way from the dark place where he once dwelled.

Campbell, of Pavilion, N.Y., spent Monday morning casting along verdant Spruce Creek as another outing organized by Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing got underway. The national nonprofit organization, founded in 2005, helps disabled or troubled veterans through rehabilitative fishing trips and outreach.

Including Campbell, a dozen veterans from Erie, Pittsburgh and the Batavia, N.Y., area will continue fishing Tuesday and Wednesday on the Evergreen Farms property.

A Vietnam War veteran, Campbell served in the Marine Corps infantry. Decades later, he still suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that affected his marriage, family and job as a printing press engineer.

He lived life, he said, “always angry and depressed.”

“I was pretty much at the end of my rope,” he said.

But then, a PTSD counselor invited him to go fishing. It turned out to be a Project Healing Waters event in Coudersport — and a lifeline.

“It turned things around for me,” Campbell said. “It was almost immediate. I took to it. I had something to focus on that I really enjoyed.”

Since that breakthrough six years ago, he has fished with Project Healing Waters every year, including along Spruce Creek in 2011. He credits his experience with saving him.

“It helped me to have some more faith and trust in people,” he said. “There were some good, supportive people who cared about me and appreciated what I had done.”

Project Healing Waters annually holds 154 programs like the one on Spruce Creek, treating about 4,000 veterans to days of fishing, meals and camaraderie, said Ray Markiewicz, the organization’s regional coordinator for western New York and Pennsylvania.

Markiewicz, a retired Buffalo, N.Y., broadcast journalist, joined the effort in its infancy in 2006, when it staged fewer than a dozen programs. He said the privately funded organization continues to expand, with programs in 47 states and Canada, working with hospitals and clinics to invite participants and to organize fly-tying classes at the facilities.

Organization leaders also hope to reach more veterans in need with the help of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, said Markiewicz, among the legions of volunteers dedicated to the cause.

“I can’t stop because I believe I’m helping people,” he said, fresh from casting for some of Spruce Creek’s torpedo-like trout. “I truly believe that.”

Downstream, Cork Sauve, a volunteer guide from Coudersport, assisted Campbell. A fellow Marine, Sauve said he was one of the “fortunate” ones.

“I had two tours in Vietnam and came back unhurt, so anything I can do for the vets I do,” he said.

The best part, he said, is simple: “Just to see the smiles on their faces.”

Dan Genest, also a volunteer trip guide, savors the reactions, too.

“Some of the guys have never caught a trout before, and their faces just light up,” said Genest, who works for Dominion, a Richmond, Va.,-based energy company that sponsors Project Healing Waters trips each year.

Back for another Spruce Creek visit, Genest said the tranquility of fly fishing often calms struggling veterans, allowing them to forget their anxieties for a while.

He remembers one Afghanistan veteran — who dived to the ground, suffering a flashback, during a Virginia trip when a Navy plane roared past on a training exercise — nevertheless finishing the day exuberant.

“He said, ‘In spite of that jet, this is the first time since I’ve been home that I haven’t worried about anything,’ ” Genest said.

Another time, a young veteran in a wheelchair observed Genest helping other veterans fish. When invited to join, the veteran said he couldn’t possibly cast from his chair.

Nonsense, said Genest, who sat beside the wheelchair and demonstrated. Persuaded, the veteran tried his hand.

“Within 30 minutes, he was making these large, beautiful casts,” Genest said.

And crying: He had always wanted his grandfather to teach him how to cast. But he was wounded, his grandfather died and the dream vanished.

But because of Genest, he could fish and think of his grandfather every time.

So many disabled veterans, Genest said, come to believe they can’t do certain things.

“To me, Project Healing Waters is telling them you can,” he said.

Campbell’s a true believer.

Rejuvenated by the fishing, he’s now teaching casting and fly-tying to other veterans — in the same spirit of the encouragement a local guide, Dave McMullen, gave him on Monday.

Campbell suggested using a zebra midge fly. Good idea, McMullen said, let’s do it.

It worked, leading to a splash, a flashing rainbow belly and Campbell, in a moment of pure happiness he might not have imagined years ago, shouting out, “Thanks, Dave!”

“We got an 18-incher,” Campbell said. “It was a team effort.”