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Author: Isaac Stone Simonelli   isimonelli@newsminer.com

As salmon hit the freshwater streams and rivers of Kodiak — metamorphosing as they do so — disabled military service personnel standing wader-deep in the same waters last week were also undergoing transformations with the help of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF).

For nine years the Kodiak Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association has teamed with Project Healing Waters to bring a handful of service personnel to the island to bond, heal, and fish the world-class salmon runs, explained Vic Laird, BMC USCG, of the Kodiak CGCPOA.

Laird has been part of the program in Kodiak for all nine years and the project lead for seven of those.

Having been exposed to the Wounded Warrior Project and looking for ways to do something on their own to give back those injured in the line of duty, the Kodiak CGCPOA connected with Project Healing Waters.

PHWFF is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.

This year, one team leader and six participants from throughout the US joined Laird and other Kodiak CG fly-fishing enthusiasts who stepped in as guides.

“We keep the group that small so it’s a little more personal and a little easier to manage in the terms of logistics,” Laird said.

Joining the trip from the Army were Gregory Bozovich, Edward Lopez, April Heard, Charlie Yeager, Mike Alexander, JC Roberson and Richard Sagran.

After three days of pulling hefty Sockeye out of Saltery, the crew returned to Bell Flats on Friday to work the Russian River for chum, pinks and dolly varden.

For Sagran, his line arching forward, tossing a small plastic bead into a pocket of deep, fast-moving water on the Russian, nothing else exists.

“When you fish. When we fish. At least when I fish, that’s all I can think about,” Sagran said during a lunch break at Rendezvous. “What’s happening in the world just goes away. That little bit of a break helps out a lot. Keeps me calm and able to maintain myself.”

Sagran, 71, is a Vietnam War veteran who left the service in 1968.

“I thought I was okay for like 40 years. I mean, I was getting in trouble, drinking a lot, and I thought that’s just who I am,” Sagran said.

“But I was actually suffering from a whole lot of issues from combat.

“Once I started hanging around and going to these different groups and finding out that I’m not alone in all of this, but there are other people going through the same thing. I think, ‘Well, okay, there’s hope here — I’m not that screwed up.’”

Three years ago, Sagran was introduced to Project Healing Waters through the grassroots Warriors Resource Center in Montrose, CO.

The people behind Project Healing Waters seem to have taken the same approach they bring to fishing to the project, baiting participants into the world of fly-fishing.

“First, you go down and spend a month, a month and a half, learning to tie flies. Then, they teach you to make your own fly rod,” said Sagran, who already has multiple hand-made rods.

The fly tying usually starts in December. By spring, participants are being taught to cast.

“Using your won flies, your own rod, you start catching fish,” Sagran said. “Then, you’re hooked!”

Many vets in the program, such as Sagran, return after their first year to mentor new service personnel, sitting down next to them as they learn to tie their first flies.

For Sagran, being part of Project Healing Waters has been transformative.

“It’s been amazing ever since,” he said. “I think it’s been the happiest three years of my entire life.”

Sagran said he recommends the project to any veteran he bumps into, just tossing it out there: “Come on down and tie some flies.”

“I’ve already been through what I’ve been through to reconnect with society and all of this. We’ve got tons people coming home or who are already home that need help,” Sagran said. “And we already know what kind of help they need. We’ve just got to get their butts in there. So they can get the help they need. That’s what the older vets are doing for the younger vets.”

Though the details of Sagran’s story are unique to him, the outline and arc of the healing power of the project are not that unusual, Laird said.

Laird also pointed out the project wouldn’t be possible on the island without the support of the Kodiak community.

“There’s Island Seafood, which processes all the fish for free; Kodiak MWR Guesthouse, and I can’t forget Frank Bishop,” Laird said. For eight of the last nine years, Bishop has donated a buffalo to be raffled off and hunted to raise funds to cover the costs for the project. This year, there were enough leftover funds from previous raffles to allow wounded service personnel to again join the trip for free.

“I just want the public to know, the Kodiak community to know, that the Chief Petty Officers Association here in Kodiak and the Project Healing Waters folks really appreciate them and their generosity,” Laird said.