SPRUCE CREEK - A suicide bomber driving a vehicle loaded with improvised explosives ended Purple Heart recipient Robert Gil's three-year military career in Iraq.
Years later, after long bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, Gil, 27, of New York City attempted to end his own life, but said a three day fishing trip in Blair County turned his life around.
Gil is one of ten wounded war veterans at Spruce Creek this week for the second Project Healing Waters fishing trip in the area, funded by Dominion Energy.
Gil is a completely different person since his first fishing trip to Spruce Creek in 2011 after the 2007 attack and the failings in college and his personal life that plagued him as he failed to transition to civilian life.
"Before this [Healing Waters], I was written off," Gil said. "'He's a college failure. He attempted suicide. This guy's life is over.'"
Since his first Spruce Creek trip with Project Healing Waters, Gil is back with his wife, back as a student at Hunter College in New York where he is starting a wildlife conservation and fly-fishing club. He has been raising money for charities including Salute America's Heroes and lost 35 pounds because he stopped drinking.
"I've done so much in the past year. It's hard to put into words. It's a new life," Gil said.
Gil's story is one of many by veterans wounded physically or emotionally.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc. has 135 programs in 48 states, said CEO Warren Phillips, who is fishing with the veterans in Spruce Creek this week.
"This [project] ensures there are incentives to stick with the group," Phillips said. "It is a relationship builder. When someone goes to the Veterans Hospital and moves out, they have a place to turn."
The veterans from Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York have a private cottage and 4 miles of prime trout stream made available to them by Spruce Creek property owner Wayne Harpster.
Meals are provided by Pine Grove Mills VFW and American Legion posts in Tyrone and State College; and fishing supplies from TCO Fly Shop in State College and Jim's Sports Center in Clearfield.
All other expenses, amounting to $6,000, are covered by Dominion Energy.
But it's more than just a fishing trip, Dominion employee and trip organizer Dave Miknis said.
Miknis and nine other avid fishermen from DuBois not only give one-on-one fly-fishing lessons to veterans, but they also keep in touch with them yearround.
"It's a small fraction of a pay back to the veterans for what they've done to ensure our freedom," Miknis said.
Gil's PTSD developed years after his military career ended and left him in a confused state for days-long spans. Gil has seen children and women killed, and even feels sorrow for the death of the Muslim suicide bomber who tried to kill him.
"In another life, that guy would have been fishing with me," Gil said. "You feel the humanity of it," he said. "It never leaves you. I don't care how tough you are, it is always with you, when you close the door at night. No one is born to have that on their shoulders."
Fly fishing has helped Gil stay focused when his mind would have strayed and become confused by his PTSD, he said.
"Tying knots, chasing after that one fish - it's a subconscious focus and I don't get confused. I've learned to chase after academics the same way," he said.
Project Healing Waters is "an incredible healing process," Gil said.
Miknis said he plans the Spruce Creek Healing Waters Project to be an annual event and next year's trip is to be solely for veterans from Altoona and Hollidaysburg.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.