When David Folkerts returned from the Iraq War in 2005, learning to fly fish wasn’t exactly the first thing on his mind. He had nearly lost his left arm due an injury sustained from a bomb blast, and after surgery was sent to recover at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. So, when retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson approached Folkerts at the hospital asking if he wanted to join a group of other wounded veterans on a fly fishing trip, he was hesitant to say yes.
“I was afraid of trying something and failing at it and then being more depressed about the situation I was in,” said Folkerts.
Captain Nicholson, who was himself a patient at Walter Reed, had become used to seeing the beds around him fill up with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As an avid angler, he decided to coordinate with the hospital to hold fly fishing lessons and outings with wounded, injured and ill service members. Though Folkerts left hand was still fully paralyzed, he he agreed to give it the sport a try.
With help from others, Folkerts learned how to cast with just one hand and operate a fly reel with a special crank so that he could retrieve the line. He slowly got a feel for the sport, visiting brook trout streams in Maryland and New York. But it was during a five day trip in Montana that Folkerts truly changed his perspective on life after the military.
“That trip in particular flipped the switch in my head,” said Folkerts, who described a calm, peaceful feeling out in the water. “I stopped focusing on the things I couldn’t do as well any more or being depressed about my situation.”
Folkerts returned to Maryland and began not only participating more in fly fishing outings, but also volunteering and recruiting others to join the group. Around this time, Captain Nicholson had turned his program at Walter Reed into a nonprofit organization, now called Project Healing Water Fly Fishing.
Today, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a national organization with multiple programs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They have nine programs in the National Capitol Region and at least a dozen more throughout the watershed, from Hampton Roads, Virginia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Within each program, veterans participate in five different types of events: fly tying, fly rod building, fly casting, fly fishing education and fly fishing outings.