This fall NMWF staff joined members from Project Healing Waters and Trout Unlimited’s Enchanted Circle Chapter in leading a group of veterans from Taos, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas on a two-day fishing and camping trip to the world famous San Juan River. Walking into the Float’N Fish Fly Shop in Navajo Dam, all the veterans were eager to pick out the flies needed to battle a trophy trout. Although we had warned the group that the renowned 18-26 inch rainbow and brown trout of the San Juan were notorious for only eating the smallest of flies, all of the veterans were amazed when Ray Johnston, Float’ N Fish’s owner, handed them a size 26 bubble-wing emerger. Holding up the micro-fly and squinting to even see it, Ruben Roybal, a veteran and marine from Las Vegas, NM asked Johnston, “Are these flies half price?” Johnston replied, “why would they be half price?” Without missing a beat Roybal quipped, “well if you are only going to give me half a fly, then it would only make sense to charge me half price.” All the veterans laughed as they contemplated how they were going to land a huge trout on such a small fly.
While the group laughed and joked throughout the weekend, there were also some more serious conversations as the vets recounted the combat they had seen in Vietnam or Iraq, about the friends they had lost during and after the war and about some of the challenges they faced upon returning home. As we sat around the campfire that first night and listened to stories of those who had served in the Army, Air Force, and Marines, I realized that we were on sacred ground—ground where one could feel as welcome and comfortable recounting the story of the big one that got away as the story about the challenges faced in combat or readjusting to life back home. As the vets spoke about the visible and invisible wounds of war, it became apparent to all of us just how important these outings truly are to both the veterans and volunteers.
With a motto of “healing those who serve,” Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled veterans and active military personnel through fly-fishing outings and education. With over 200 chapters throughout the nation, Project Healing Waters currently has three chapters in New Mexico—Taos, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces. Over this past year, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation has worked with the Taos Project Healing Waters chapter to help guide an all veterans fly fishing team in Trout Unlimited’s annual Enchanted Circle Fishing Tournament as well as helped lead fishing trips to the Los Pinos and San Juan.
While many of the veterans simply enjoy the camaraderie of fishing or fly-tying with their peers, others told us that they are involved in Project Healing Waters because of the opportunity to learn new outdoor skills or because they feel a great sense of serenity, mindfulness, and a chance to reset while fly-fishing. Other veterans told us that they are involved with the program because fishing the beautiful rivers on New Mexico’s public lands makes them remember and continue to appreciate what they fought for.
As Ruben Roybal reminded the group on the San Juan, “as a combat vet and after experiencing many dark days and nights in my life, I needed to dig deep within myself and remember why I wanted to serve my country to begin with. I love the outdoors and all the activities possible, the outdoors has lots of healing powers, all vets should try this. It takes strength and courage for a warrior to ask for help.” As we wound up around the campfire, all the veterans acknowledged that a day on the river had done wonders for their mental, physical, and spiritual state.
Standing in the cold waters of the San Juan helping these veterans land fish after fish while taking photos of them smiling alongside their catch, I realized that the transformation wasn’t just occurring in the vets, but also in us volunteers. Paul White, Program Lead for Project Healing Waters Taos, sums it up nicely saying, “as an avid fly fisherman, I have more fun teaching disabled veterans to fly fish than catching fish myself. It is both a rewarding and humbling experience to watch these heroes put aside their issues and have fun.”
As I pulled into my driveway from our weekend on the San Juan, I received this text from Ruben: “this weekend inspired and rejuvenated my emotional state. I felt catching my first trout on a fly rod was amazing. As I looked at the colors on that trout, I saw all the colors of the rainbow and I thought I had found the treasure at the end of the rainbow. All in all, this weekend was a ray of sunshine in my life, thank you!”
While a few days on the San Juan may not wash away the wounds of war, as both the vets and volunteers found, the waters of the river can be a great source of healing, wholeness and transformation.
If you’re interested in our work with veterans please reach out Andrew Black firstname.lastname@example.org.