Andrew Koloski knows what those who’ve signed up for Project Healing Waters are going through.
The retired soldier and Give! Campaign coordinator deployed to Kuwait, Iraq and Eastern Europe during his 24-year military career. Now he works with the local chapter of a 501(c)3 to provide some respite for American warriors who return home broken.
The nonprofit, according to its mission, “is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.”
The first program was started at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 2005 and has grown to more than 20 operational programs serving disabled veterans and disabled military service personnel from all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Japan and Germany. PHWFF also has affiliate programs in Canada and Australia.
The Colorado Springs chapter, which has been up and running since 2008, is one of the most active in the country, Koloski said.
It began as part of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Carson and now boasts 600 participants and about 350 volunteers. Participants are either disabled veterans or active duty service members who have a physician’s recommendation.
“Fly fishing is a very therapeutic thing,” Koloski said. “The fishing and all the things associated with it take a lot of concentration and that concentration takes the veterans into the now; it allows them to be very present. It’s a very mindful thing and allows them to forget all the other things going on in their lives and to focus on what’s going on right there.”
An additional benefit, Koloski said, is participants are connected to a community that’s interested in the outdoors and fly fishing, so vets are introduced to those with a common hobby.
“You’ll see tons of our vets pair up and fish on their own,” he said. “Now they have a community that helps replace that sense of teamwork and belonging they had in the service.
“The connectedness is a huge part,” Koloski added. “Vets come for the fishing and stay for the people. Most of the guys out there who need help won’t admit it. So this activity becomes a backdoor to open up.”
One example, Koloski said, involves a combat medic.
“He saw some horrible things during his service,” he said. “He got out and was a recluse, a shut-in. He barely went outside. Somebody convinced him to sign up for the program and he did fly-tying to start but would sit in the corner and not talk to anybody. Now he’s a volunteer for the program. You can’t get him to shut up. The transformation in him — it’s not 100 percent representative of everyone, but it is representative of the potential power the program has. Our program has literally saved people’s lives.”
Last year, Project Healing Waters raised about $26,000 through Give! The Springs branch spends about $132,000 a year. That money goes to provide all the fly fishing activities and equipment free of charge to all participants.
“We do rod-building for 10 vets a year,” Koloski said. “We build rods from scratch, carve the handles.”
There’s also a program where vets and active duty service members use woodworking to build fishing nets.
“It’s like art,” Koloski said.
In May, PHWFF will start its annual fly-casting classes, and the nonprofit leads about 50 fishing trips between April and October. They range from one-day trips to Eleven Mile to three-day jaunts in Montana.
Anyone who wishes to apply to participate or volunteer with the program should go through the website, phwffcoloradosprings.org, and someone from the nonprofit will be in touch, Koloski said. And once enrolled, participants get emails for all upcoming educational events and trips, which all but melt stress away.
“It’s tough to be angry when you’re standing in a river in Eleven Mile State Park, listening to birds and all the things Colorado has to offer,” he said. “It’s amazing.”