Pittsburgh Disabled Veterans Gather to Fish Again

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Thanks to Erie participant, Gary Rihn, for providing this update on the Pittsburgh program’s first 2021 in-person outing.

There is no doubt that the recent coronavirus pandemic affected everybody. However, some people were affected in different ways than others. 

One group hit particularly hard were veterans who were cut off from their peers who they rely upon for support. These veterans who were used to regularly meeting with their fellow vets suddenly found themselves isolated and alone.

Fortunately for the veterans in the Pittsburgh, PA program of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), their support system was able to continue in the virtual world. Throughout the pandemic, their veterans were able to participate in virtual meetings where they could continue to learn about fly fishing and fly tying on a regular basis. PHWFF Pittsburgh program lead Amanda Thompson explained that volunteers would lead fly tying classes, educational talks, presentations and other things related to fly fishing that veterans could “attend” to keep them engaged. 

But nothing replaces actual face-to-face contact with friends, and within days of PHWFF headquarters loosening restrictions on unlimited in-person gatherings, Thompson was arranging outings for her veterans. She explained that she kept in touch with her outing hosts throughout the pandemic so that as soon as restrictions were lifted, they could hit the ground running. She said, “The hosts kept asking, ‘When can you come back?’ I think they missed seeing the veterans too!”

The first outing took place in mid-August at Conway Sportsmen’s Club in Zelienople, PA, where the PHWFF participants were able to finally fish together since early last year in the club’s four acre pond. Close to 40 participants  and volunteers showed up for the day, which included fishing, lunch, storytelling, and even a few fish being caught. One of the veterans in attendance was Dave Laepple, a Viet Nam veteran who remarked about the day, “I liked the in-person talking today. It wasn’t good for me during Covid. Project Healing Waters does special things; I’ve become friends with these guys, even better than guys I knew before”. Another participant, Jerry Mong, added that he missed the camaraderie and personal friendships, and was happy to be back with his fellow veterans. 

Volunteers are also crucial to the success of PHWFF and its programs. One of the volunteers attending the event was James Hill, who has been with the PHWFF Pittsburgh program for four years. He related some of the difficulties of operating in the Covid environment, for both volunteers and participants. Even though the programs sent out pre-packaged fly tying kits each month for the participants, and held video classes led by volunteers so that the participants could stay involved in tying, it wasn’t the same as being together.  “The technology was a hurdle, especially for some of our older veterans. We knew we didn’t have as many participants tuning in; it was concerning to us, wondering how they were doing”, he said. Thompson also had high praise for the volunteers who consistently came forward to help. “I was so impressed with how our volunteers jumped in and offered to hold virtual sessions. They are so talented and willing to share, and they knew how important it was for us to continue to interact with the veterans”. 

Much of PHWFF’s mission of being 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 takes place during events like these, where vets are free to relax, talk, and share with their buddies while enjoying a pastime that is proven to help in their healing process. Mong shared, “Project Healing Waters is awesome hands-on therapy; making new friends that understand each others situation that may be on their mind”. While fly fishing can be an intense sport, it is also surprisingly relaxing. One huge benefit to veterans is that while they are concentrating on casting and their fly while waiting for a fish to take it, their focus is diverted from the world around them. 

With PHWFF being a non-profit organization, they rely on donations to keep the programs running. One form of donations is offering facilities for the use of the veterans. When asked why the Conway Sportsmen’s Club graciously provided their grounds and pond, club members Brian Lippert and Ray Eppinger explained that the club is the perfect size for an event like this, and offers easy access for handicapped veterans with limited mobility. In fact, after a similar PHWFF event at the club two years ago, they raised funds and constructed a wheelchair-friendly dock extending into the lake specifically for events like this. One of the veterans who uses a wheelchair and was able to take advantage of the facilities was Dave Gifford, who said, “It is inspiring to see my fellow veterans who have their own medical issues come out and be part of our group again”. He mentioned that his fly tying and fly fishing had come to a stop during the pandemic, and was grateful to be able to be back out with people that he had lost touch with.

As the day was wrapping up, the overall consensus was a definite feeling of positive energy about being able to finally start getting together with old friends again. For one afternoon, they were able to put aside what was bothering them, hang out with those that understand, and make new memories together. Lippert and Eppinger noticed that it took a long time for some of the veterans to even get their gear ready and to start fishing. Eppinger observed, “We expected more competition. It turned out that it didn’t even matter if they caught a fish.”

Mong summed up the day with, “Today was about great friends getting together again; therapy is everywhere”.

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