'It's not about war stories. It's about making you feel good'

'It's not about war stories. It's about making you feel good'

PACIFIC CITY, Ore. -- The Nestucca River is calm and quiet on a fall September morning, except for the buzz of a group of men and women, their rods and their boats.

At first glance, they appear to be fishermen and women eagerly anticipating a day full of fly fishing and wondering what luck they'll have.

But this group is different. For them, it's not so much about the catch, as the experience on the river.

The people here are all part of a program called Project Healing Waters. It's a national non-profit, but locally has been coordinated in the Portland-Vancouver area for six years. The program is geared for disabled veterans and active duty military personnel who rehabilitate both emotionally and physically through fly-tying and fly fishing.

These veterans say what they get out of it varies just as much as their service records and injuries.

George Lonnee is a Marine who served in the Vietnam War in 1965-66 and 1968-69.

"I'm glad I went, but it was an experience that stayed with me for 40 years," Lonnee said. "I got shrapnel, buried alive from incoming mortars. It was pretty traumatic."

Lonnee suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and he attends counseling every Wednesday. Out on the water, he still thinks about the past.

"I think about Vietnam and what we left behind and what we have that these guys are giving to us that's emotional," Lonnee said about Project Healing Waters. 

He said he's been on two other fly-fishing outings, where veterans are paired up one on one as they drift on the water. Learning how to cast properly, focusing on the rhythm and movement.

Lonnee said Project Healing Waters has helped him tremendously, and even his family has noticed a big difference. He said he's benefited from the program and his connection with another veteran on one boat has helped him personally.

"I"ve mellowed out a bit. I don't have so much anger; I want to go on with life, that's what's neat. I still think of Vietnam and it's tough some times without Bob, I would have never done it."

"They're not just sitting there sewing leather wallets. It's really therapy in the sense that they get to be out in the community," said local Project Healing Waters coordinator Jerry Lorang.

Lorang said each year, for the last six, they've done two workshops a month and six to eight fishing trips a year. He said each of the boats used for the outing on the Nestucca River are donated, as is the time by the guides.

Lorang said the program has benefited countless veterans, in so many ways.

"To a fisherman, I don't have to explain it.  Fishing is therapeutic, it's something we do because it's an escape and it's a wonderful opportunity and we get to do it in some of the most beautiful places in the world," he said.

"They're developing fine motor skills they can develop socialization skills because they're out in the world with others. They get a chance to get away but at the same time do something productive and recreational," said Lorang of the veterans in the program.

Theresa Chinn says the social experience specifically with other veterans is a huge part of why she enjoys the program.

"I've been real isolated for quite some time, so to be in a social experience with people you don't have to explain anything to is kind of like baby steps towards getting out of my house again," said Chinn, who was in the army in 1976-1979. Her knees and feet collapsed while on active duty service, followed by other traumatic events.

While they only caught a few fish, Chinn says it's not about the fight for the fish, which they'd release anyways.  It's not even about casting the perfect line.

"It's calming, like yoga for your brain," said Chinn.

Out on the river, the veterans get to be themselves. Although they're paired up with one other person, they're also surrounded by support, camaraderie and in a pressure free environment. 

"When you're around other veterans, there's an unspoken understanding. We're a cohort," said Chinn.

"We're all brothers. I don't care if they're Marine, Air Force, Army or whatever. We're all there for each other. Trust is the biggest thing, it's not about war stories, it's about making you feel good," said Lonnee.

For many of these veterans, Project Healing Waters might not take away all of the pain, but it is making a big difference for the folks who are dealing with very real problems in their lives.

"They walk away looking like they swallowed a coat hanger because they've got huge smiles on their face, that means so much to me I don't know how else to say it but that it fills my life," said Lorang.

Read more: Project Healing Waters on Facebook