Wounded veterans find healing

SPRUCE CREEK – Fifteen Purple Heart recipients will cast their lines this morning along Spruce Creek for the fourth annual fly fishing trip for wounded veterans.

“Really no words can describe it. We’re blessed today,” said veteran Robert Gil of Bushkill.

“When I first met (program coordinator) Dave (Miknis), I was totally not like I am today. I was in a shell. There was really no program for veterans coming back. I was suffering from (post-traumatic stress disorder) and (traumatic brain injury). I wasn’t really being treated for it, and I dwindled away as a person. I didn’t speak to anybody for about two years. I was actually in the hospital because I tried to commit suicide, and I was just done with life,” Gil said.

This year’s three-day event includes five veterans from Altoona, five from Erie and five from Pittsburgh. Each veteran is paired up 1-on-1 with an experienced fly fishing guide. The guides are responsible for teaching the veterans how to fly fish and helping them to catch the fish.

Over the past four years, Miknis has been in charge of coordinating the fishing trip on behalf of Dominion, one of the nation’s largest natural gas companies, which is hosting and funding the event.

In planning the trip, Miknis collaborated with a group known as Project Healing Waters, the organization responsible for selecting the 15 soldiers to participate.

“Project Healing Waters is devoted to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of wounded war veterans through fly fishing,” said Miknis.

Gil said, “Someone told me about Project Healing Waters. The first trip was in 2011 over here with Dave. It was the first time I was in a group, meeting other vets and talking about the things that happened. When I was first casting, I wasn’t really focused on fishing. I was lost, not sure where I was at, and Dave whispered to me, ‘these fish aren’t shooting back, man.'”

For Gil, participating in his first Project Healing Waters’ annual fly fishing trip to Spruce Creek presented him with an opportunity for more than just fishing.

“Dave taught me how to communicate and how to worry about things other than war. He helped me adjust through fishing,” said Gil.

“No one really talks about war; no one asks about war. We’re just talking about fish. With a rod in your hand, you can just leave everything behind on the river.”

According to Gil, fly fishing has added an ideal, natural technique for relieving stress to his toolbox.

“Nature has a lot of tools for us that sometimes we forget. We’re so busy living our lives, trying to get over things, that we’re not really in the present. This slows you down and lets you regroup,” he explained.

“Sometimes when my symptoms are worse than other days, I can’t focus too well. My hands shake; I have severe anxiety. . I just sit down and tie flies. It’s such a meticulous hobby, that you forget about everything if you’re just tying flies. For me, that’s the biggest healing factor. You can’t fish every day, but you can tie flies every day. It’s a hobby you can take home. I even taught my wife how to tie flies.”

Among the supporters of this year’s event was national fly fishing legend Joe Humphreys.

“I like to be with the veterans; they sacrifice so much for us. I was in the Navy for four years, and I know what these guys have gone through and what they’ve done for us. Some of these guys are Purple Heart veterans. With the loss of limbs and everything else, they made a supreme sacrifice for us,” Humphreys said. “I like to see the change of pace, and I like to see the light in their eyes.”

The Pine Grove Mills Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Tyrone Legion and the State College Legion each donated all of the meals for one day of the event.

“This is the first time we did chicken; we figured they deserved more than burgers and hotdogs,” said Bob Nein, president of the Tyrone Legion. “It’s an honor to give back to them for what they gave to us.”

The fly fishing trip for the veterans will continue through Wednesday.