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Fly-Fishing Program Helps Military Service Personnel with Brain Injuries and PTSD

Project Healing Waters provides outdoor experiences for wounded service members in Shepherd Center's SHARE Military Initiative.

Ken Griffin, a retired U.S. Army officer from Peachtree City, Ga., who was injured in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, was relaxing after fly fishing a few years ago, and the beautiful surroundings gave him an idea.

“My injuries weren’t hurting, the water was fabulous and the scenery was so peaceful,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘This would be great for other vets to experience.’”

So Griffin, 68, started Fly Fishing for Vets, an organization that became a chapter of a national program called Project Healing Waters. Two years ago, he and other members of the group – some of them also veterans – began working with military service members in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative. SHARE provides rehabilitation, assistance and support to U.S. military service members and veterans (and their families) who have sustained mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Their work has been invaluable,” said Susan Johnson, program director of Shepherd Center's Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit. “It has gone beyond anything we expected. It’s had an extraordinary impact on the lives of military service members and veterans. They befriend them, gain their trust and allow them to experience things they’ve never experienced. They get them back into the community and provide an avenue for them to attain peace and tranquility.”      

In 2012, Fly Fishing for Vets volunteers spent 2,162 hours teaching SHARE participants to tie flies, build rods and cast a line. They took them on nine fishing trips, as well.

Harry Yates, 52, a retired U.S. Army colonel who participated in SHARE, said that before his first fly-tying class, “I thought, ‘OK, I’ll learn it today and forget it tomorrow,’” due to his memory loss issues following a TBI.

But after eight weeks, he said:  “You start to see some serious change. The patience and the repeated meetings I experienced turned into a positive outcome. The collaboration between Project Healing Waters and SHARE has been life-changing.”

Inability to focus and loss of motor coordination are common issues for military service members with TBI and PTSD. Tying flies, building rods and fishing teach them to focus.

“When you tie a fly, you have to wind the thread around the hook in the same direction, or it loosens everything,” said Gene Barrington, a Cumming, Ga., architect and SHARE volunteer. “Something as simple as following the proper sequence helps develop their memory, and they end up with an item they can use to go fishing.”

“Other forms of therapy are necessary and important, but they’re no fun,” Yates said. “The great thing about fly fishing is that it’s completely unnecessary, but it’s fun. It’s a relief. When you prepare your own fly, use the rod you built and catch a fish, that’s the Super Bowl of therapy.”

Eunice Lovell, a retired probation counselor from Tucker, Ga., says the community of people who fly-fish respects the military service members and veterans for their sacrifices. Exposing them to the therapeutic quality of nature is their way  of giving back.

“There’s nothing like being in the river and hearing water around you constantly,” she said. “You’re hardly aware of anything, and you’re surrounded by all this beauty.”

One SHARE participant was so agitated when he entered the program that he sat with his back to the wall and jumped at the slightest disturbances. “Now, he’s happy and relaxed,” Barrington said. “The fly-fishing program has helped transform him. The change was that dramatic. That’s what fly fishing and SHARE did for him. These wounded vets are inspirational. Working with the guys and gals at Shepherd has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Volunteers are trained to be sensitive and when to push and when to pull back.

“Sometimes, they know I don’t want to talk, and that’s fine with them,” Yates said. “Other times, it’s good to socialize and talk things out. Not only are they experts at their craft, they are also experts at dealing with people with disabilities. And for us vets, it’s a tremendous asset being able to talk to others who have the same disability. We hang out and get to know each other pretty well. Those fishing trips built friendships and gave me experiences I never would have had had it not been for SHARE.”

The program also has a long-term payoff because the benefits don’t stop when the participants finish the classes. They leave with the equipment, knowledge and companions for a lifelong hobby.

“Fly fishing is not like football, where you learn it when you’re young, and when you get older, you watch it on TV,” Yates said. “You can fly fish for the rest of your life. It’s a life skill and a lifetime recreational activity. The collaborative effort between veterans, SHARE and Project Healing Waters is a perfect combination. It’s a ‘win’ for everyone involved.”

For more information on SHARE or to donate to the program, visit our website at

Written by John Christensen
Photos Courtesy of Project Healing Waters

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.