Healing Vets With Rod and Reel
October 25th, 2018 by Brandon Pomrenke

Katie Puterbaugh—pictured wrangling a large stingray—is a volunteer and participant with Project Healing Waters in Alaska.

Annual fishing event in the Florida Keys brings together disabled veterans and volunteers for three days of camaraderie and adventure

“Whoa, flying fish!”

“Man, this is going to be great!”

Noticeably absent from the cheerful calls heard over the whir of fishing boat engines are discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder, combat and wounds that still haunt some of these disabled veterans.

Twenty-five veterans from various branches of the U.S. military were selected to attend Fish With a Hero, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help veterans deal with PTSD and other wartime injuries. Attendees are selected from more than 200 chapters of Project Healing Waters, which works to help disabled active duty personnel and veterans recover through support, partnership and learning to fly fish with fellow veterans.

The event was in Islamorada, Florida, from September 25 to September 28. The all-expense-paid excursion was overseen by Fish With a Hero Florida Keys Director of Operations Mark Gibson, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran who served in Vietnam.

“I’ve been a fisherman all my life,” Mark says. “Gulf Coast fishing, backcountry—I’ve been doing this since I was knee-high to a grasshopper back in Texas.”

Decades after his combat experience—and while spending a day on a boat with other veterans during his fourth residential PTSD therapy—Mark realized fishing could be a way to heal.

“I remember thinking on the way back in, ‘I don’t remember the last time I felt this good,’” he says. “I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have something going 90 mph in my head. I realized this was something I needed to pursue further. I figured I could make dealing with PTSD my excuse or my purpose. I chose to make it my purpose.”

Mark chartered fishing boats out of Tampa for eight years before moving to the Keys and starting Dauntless Fishing. While working part time at Bass Pro Shops, he was introduced to Fish With a Hero Executive Director Larry Kendzior. Mark took a group out on the water and decided it was a good fit.

A few years later, with financial support from Worldwide Sportsman and Bass Pro Shops, he brought the event to Islamorada.

The Healing Process
Recreational therapy is often used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in dealing with PTSD and other injuries. It offers veterans a chance to try something new, meet others with similar backgrounds and, sometimes, a way to keep their minds off trauma.

“One of the things in dealing with PTSD is getting outside yourself,” Mark says. “Relationships, work performance and so many things decline because you’re so wrapped up in your own head.”

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Lou Orrie retired after 30 years and now lives in Navarre. He was a door gunner for many years in combat zones, which left a lasting impression—physical and mental.

“A lot of the dust-offs in Afghanistan were pretty nasty,” Lou says, referring to emergency casualty evacuations. “A lot of landings we made were just controlled crashes.”

He has had 13 surgeries in the past
61/2 years, and still suffers night terrors, which he says are difficult for him and his wife.

Lou’s service dog, Becker—who gets anxious when Lou is not near—has been by his side for about 16 months. He says she anticipates his emotions and leaps into action. Becker knows when Lou is experiencing a night terror, too, and gently rests her head on his shoulder or leg to soothe him.

With Becker in tow, Lou says he enjoys the program.

“There’s no pressure,” he says. “My wife is happy that I’m doing this. She knows I’m creative, and I like to work with my hands. When tying flies you are able to create whatever you want. You can try to duplicate whatever you see in nature with a fly.”

Keeping busy and experimenting with new techniques are just some of the program’s benefits. Lou says many groups work with local schools to teach students fly-fishing basics. For many, it’s as simple as having a new purpose, a new mission.

Lou says he never would have learned to fly fish or attend an event like this if it were not for Healing Waters and Fish With a Hero. He believes they make a difference.

“There’s always that constant struggle to stop the 22 veteran suicides a day,” Lou says. “That’s why these programs help. They open doors. We often don’t want to ask for help. It took me forever to ask. It’s just one of those things that many think it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help.”

The trick, he says, is making sure veterans and their families know about the program. When battling severe depression and other trauma, Lou says people often don’t want to do things that used to bring them joy.

Mark understands that withdrawal. He has made it his mission to bring these veterans an outlet for fun, adventure and stress relief.

He says fishing and spending time on the water can do just that.

“They can get a window of what it feels like not to have these weights on their shoulders at all times,” Mark says. “I’ve seen the guys and women who I take out, and it seems like their worries just melt away—especially when they’re with other vets.”

Katie Puterbaugh—who retired from the Air Force after 25 years and stayed in Alaska after several years at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson—became part of that connection as volunteer.

“I approached Project Healing Waters looking to be a volunteer,” she says. I knew how to fish in Alaska, and I thought maybe I could somebody out.”

Because Katie also has a disability rating from the VA, she also qualified to be a participant, which provided more insight to share at regular meetings in Anchorage.

“The program is tremendous for individuals with TBI or PTSD because it gives them something else to think about,” Katie says.

Fish With a Hero
Executive Director Larry Kendzior agrees that fishing is a great way to bring wounded veterans peace. He initially contacted the Wounded Warrior Project and pitched them on creating a fishing event to help wounded veterans. They passed. After a couple years of trying, he heard about Project Healing Waters.

When Larry reached out to the organization and learned its annual event could not be funded, he wrote a check to make sure it happened.

“It was amazing to see the difference in these guys from when they left for two days to when they got back,” he says.

Larry says the entire group was quiet and close mouthed, but that all changed by the evening’s gathering. Larry wanted that to continue, but in the Keys.

After successful fishing excursions in Pigeon Key, Healing Waters leadership asked Larry if he would lead a national event. That resulted in Fish With a Hero.

Shortly after, he met Mark—a twice-wounded combat veteran—who volunteered to take on the Islamorada-based event with local support.

“In both Islamorada and Fort Myers—where the event began—there are numerous businesses that support our efforts,” Larry says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They go way overboard. It brings out the best in people.”

Larry says participants often become the volunteers and support staff. In a sense, they become givers with a new
purpose—not the patients.

“I’m no expert in the field, but I think giving helps greatly in the healing process,” Larry says.

A new challenge goes a long way for many who feel lost.

“What it boils down to for all of us is when you’re in the military, you have a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging,” Lou says. “When you separate from the military, you kind of lose that sense of purpose. You try to find something to fill that void. I think the folks who can’t fill that void often are the ones who take their lives.”

The void is difficult for many. Others are haunted by wartime memories.

“When you do some of the things you do in wartime, there’s a price that must be paid,” Larry says.

As the war has gone on, Mark says the number of deployments for service members continues to rise. They spend month after month away from family and friends, and they may do so several times throughout the war. It takes a toll.

Katie says she was never in harm’s way, but she knows that is a different story for many veterans, especially for those who need an outlet or new direction.

“I honestly believe programs like Project Healing Waters and Fish With a Hero save lives,” she says.

Mark has seen breakthroughs on the water, but also has experienced heartbreak.

One veteran, who was twice-wounded and suffered from PTSD, spent two days fishing with him. The man’s wife heard about Mark and his work with vets, and she wanted to send her husband on a fishing trip.

“I did two full days with him, had a fantastic time and caught a lot of fish, “ Mark says. “Things were great!”

Two weeks later, the man’s wife called and said her husband was doing great—that he was practically a different person. The three stayed in touch for some time. But the stress was too much. Mark recently learned the man killed himself.

“I can’t even imagine what his wife and their two kids are going through,” Mark says. “That one was tough.”

He says that is why veterans who volunteer and join support programs such as Healing Waters and Fish With a Hero are so important. They show others that healing is possible.

“One of the common misconceptions about vets coming home is that they can just fit right back in,” Mark says. “When your head is on a swivel for six months or a year, you have a purpose and camaraderie. These are people you trust. You no longer have that purpose, and it takes time and it takes effort.”

Many participants and volunteers agree it is time to do more to combat PTSD and the high veteran suicide rate.

“What can we do to stop the 22 a day? Lou asks. “I think the answer is more programs like this.”

For more information about Fish With a Hero and Project Healing Waters, go to fishwithahero.com or projecthealingwaters.org.