After 20 years in the military, Chuck Myers retired in 2014.
“They don’t really prepare you,” he says. “They just hand you a bunch of documents and basically say, ‘Okay, you’re good to go. “”
Myers was not ready to leave.
His life was organized by missions, by precise instructions and objectives to be achieved, until suddenly this was no longer the case. He struggled to find purpose in the civilian world. He also struggled with memories that refused to be buried in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe that’s where he was supposed to be, he thought.
“For those first three years,” Myers says, “if I had been told, ‘You have a choice to retire or deploy,’ I would say, ‘What time is the gun draw? “”
He learned valuable lessons during those years. One: “You must continue. You can’t sit still and start overthinking.
It was a lesson that brought him here, to a lake nestled in the mountains west of his home in Colorado Springs.
Myers has a rod in his hand, with nothing in mind but the shiny fish gazing at the fly he has meticulously tied. He watches that bait drift on the glistening water, watches that Donaldson’s rainbow trout drift below, his gaze only broken by the surrounding beauty and the bald eagle’s nest perched high on a pine tree.
This morning, Myers is one of twelve veterans traveling with Project Healing Waters. One of the non-profit organization’s largest and most active national programs is based in Colorado Springs – not surprisingly, given the organization’s mission associated with military populations and local fish.
Since 2005, Project Healing Waters has been dedicated to the recovery of veterans. This recovery goes through this rhythmic sport so often associated with Zen. A Harvard Medical School studyfor its part, found that veterans experienced reduced stress and improved sleep after a fly fishing retreat.
It wasn’t that different from this one with Project Healing Waters. Like the group’s fly tying and rod building classes, the outing is free for these budding anglers. The trip is one of many planned for the year, one that is in a private fishery.
These quieter grounds are preferred, says organizer Dan Snelling. “Some of our people have problems with really big crowds,” he says.
Some come to the group to overcome physical illnesses, but others are like the volunteer at the grill, cooking lunch. That’s Mike McCleish, who served 21 years in the military, including special ops in the Middle East.
“You can’t tell what my handicap is,” he said. “What weighs me down the most is what goes on between my ears.”
June is National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. McCleish knows about this scourge every month, too aware of other servicemen he claims. On average, 17 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
“If I can play a part that prevents one, it’s not a statistic,” McCleish says.
The Healing Waters Project became his mission after his retirement in 2018. By volunteering, he decided, he could help others connect to this lifelong passion. It could help them “find that same inner calm and comfort,” he says.
Not all volunteers have military training. There’s Matt VanOrman, for example.
The retired dentist practiced near Fort Carson, where he heard stories of deployments and casualties. He heard stories during his years teaching with Project Healing Waters.
“We had a gentleman who came to one of our classes, and he couldn’t even be in the class. We actually set him up in the hallway, worked with him one-on-one,” says VanOrman. “At the end, he was right in the middle with all the other participants. … We spoke with his mother afterwards. She came to us and said, ‘I didn’t think we would have it by the end of the year.’ She said he would stay in his room.
“You hear it from time to time, people say this program saves lives. It does.”
It does, executives say, thanks to the acute concentration required by tying flies, building rods and, ultimately, fishing. It’s about finding a purpose for it all.
“It’s about not remembering the things that cause your problems,” says Snelling.
It is about the natural environment. “Fish don’t live in ugly places,” says another organizer, Andy Koloski.
It’s a matter of camaraderie. Cheers erupt when a quiet newcomer lands a trout that appears to be 17 inches tall. His personal best, he reports.
“It’s our reason for being,” Koloski told him. “Personal bests.”
But it shouldn’t be about catching anything. For Myers, Donaldson’s rainbow trout might never bite. He seems happy.
Look around you, he said. “You just sat here and said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ ”
If you or someone you know is in trouble, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text TALK (8255) to 741741 on the Crisis Text Line.
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