Fly-fishing, friends and family: How a house on Spring Creek became a home for veterans

Inside a grand, Georgian-style house situated on a picturesque 3.5 acre parcel on the banks of Spring Creek is the heart of a local veterans’ service organization dedicated to environmental conservation and preserving the well-being of all veterans.

The Spring Creek House at Camp Breac — the Gaelic word for brown trout — is a labor of love for Vietnam War veteran Jim Lanning, who served as a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant. Lanning, along with several other veterans, are active in the Trout Unlimited Spring Creek Chapter’s Veterans Service Program, which provides free resources and fly-fishing instruction to veterans and their families in Centre County.

Sitting in a recliner sipping a mug of coffee, Lanning mused that the program volunteers, many of whom are veterans, are in the business of solving problems.

“All of us are trained to solve problems for people transitioning either from the sand, or the old guys,” he said.

Jim Lanning, chairman of the Veterans Service Program through the Trout Unlimited Spring Creek Chapter, talks about the organization Thursday at the Spring Creek House. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Last November, Lanning and his wife Denise bought the house on West Water Street off Buffalo Run Road and fixed it up to create a gathering place for veterans of any age and their families. The house also serves to grow the fly-fishing programs they use as outreach to build a network of veterans and active duty military personnel.

For Daniel Van Winkle, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant and Vietnam veteran, the fly-fishing drew him in but the group of friends he found in the other veterans made him stay.

“So now I catch fish occasionally,” he said with a laugh, “and have a group of vets now that we can communicate with and share stories with and fish with, so it’s worked out well.”

Mentoring children as young as 11 up to 88-year-old World War II veterans in fly-fishing has been “very rewarding,” he said, because it’s about more than just fishing.

Since all the mentors have received listening training from certified mental health professionals, Van Winkle said, the process becomes more about “letting (the veterans) tell you about their experiences either about the war or afterward and getting to know them.”

Jim Hibbert, a retired U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said that the organization tries to mirror aspects of military service that veterans come to rely on.

“When you’re in the military ... everyone kind of looks out for each other. When we leave the military and come back into civilian life ... we don’t have that sense of network or family that we had when we were in,” he said. “That’s a lot of what we’re trying to build here. So that the veterans can come someplace and be with people who understand their experiences that they’ve had and share those experiences back and forth.”

Volunteers with the VSP have a book of contacts for everything from helping veterans find housing and pay bills to filing VA claims and getting health care coverage, he said.

The Trout Unlimited Spring Creek Chapter’s Veterans Service Program provides free resources and fly-fishing instruction to veterans and their families in Centre County. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Lanning said the experience of coming back from combat or a deployment can be very isolating. At 19, when he came back from Vietnam, he said, “people of the towns and cities called us baby killers and asked us who we napalmed.”

Most soldiers who come to Spring Creek House from a deployment are “trying to figure out how to get back mainstreamed again,” he said. They ask how things work in the civilian world, and how to get on with the rest of their lives.

“We do everything we can to make them fit,” he said. “It’s these guys and this place ... all of this heals, the outdoors. Gives you a place to get away, kick back, not think about the stuff, and if you want to ask somebody something, you can ask them and get a credible answer.”

Part of that integration is through service to the community, like packing backpacks of food at the YMCA in Bellefonte and handling all the logistics for the Get Outdoors program run through ClearWater Conservancy, said Lanning. Volunteers and participants complete over 1,500 hours of service to the community each year. Around the property, veterans constructed an accessible walking path to the stream bank, a playhouse for the children and various art projects.

VSP is looking for ways to expand its reach and attract more veterans to its programs and services, said board member Bob Sills, former Army National Guard sergeant during the Vietnam era. Currently, the group runs a Learn to Fish on Spring Creek program on the first and third Sunday of each month from 1 to 5 p.m. from April to October at Fisherman’s Paradise.

For veterans and their families who participate in the program, Trout Unlimited provides fishing gear, supplies, a fishing license and a one-year membership to Trout Unlimited. During the off-season from January to March, the VSP offers fly-fishing and fly tying classes for beginners and intermediates at South Hills School of Business and Technology in State College.

In the future, Sills said, VSP wants to offer activities beyond fishing to increase the pool of veterans it serves.

“We’re really blessed here as far as fishing is concerned,” he said. “... The resources are here, all we have to do is find ways to engage more of the vets to get them out.”

Van Winkle said the group is excited to have the house because it allows them to expand the Sunday fishing program into any day of the week a veteran wants to fish. For those who don’t fish, the house is a place for veterans to sit in nature, hike or talk and share stories with each other.

The Spring Creek House at Camp Breac offers a place for veterans to gather and find resources through the Veterans Service Program of Trout Unlimited Spring Creek Chapter. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Above all, creating family and welcoming veterans’ family members is central to VSP’s mission, said Lanning. Hibbert, who takes care of his two children full time, said the VSP and the Spring Creek House are a great way to teach his children about service to the community. Both sons are on the autism spectrum, and over the program’s five years they’ve learned to fly fish and take on extra duties in the program, he said.

And as much as he helps others in the program, the program has helped him immeasurably too.

“It’s been a way for me to integrate myself in a community, find a way to serve again and involve my family in that service too,” he said. “It’s a chance to find purpose again.”

For more information about the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s Veterans Service Program, visit springcreektu.org/vsp.html or contact Jim Lanning at jlanningvsp@gmail.com.

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.