Elvind Forseth was a second lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division when his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device in January 2005 in Mosul, Iraq.
The explosion left his right hand paralyzed and restricted the movement of his right elbow.
He returned to the United States for rehabilitation at the Walter Reed Hospital outside the District of Columbia. But the injury left him depressed, with little interest in rehabilitation.
"Traditional physical therapy is just plain boring," Forseth said. "To get your grip back, they make you move marbles from one spot on a table to the other. When you're finished, you say to yourself, 'I just blew my day, This sucks.'"
So his mother and a fellow military member recommended he do something else: Go fly-fishing.
Forseth became involved with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a program created in 2005 that serves military personal who have been injured in battle. Its goal is to hasten their physical and emotional recovery by introducing or rebuilding the skills of fly-fishing and fly-tying and then applying them on fishing outings.
"A few things happen once you become adept at fly-fishing," said Forseth, now a captain, who went on to serve as a coordinator for the project. "You must use all of your limbs. That, in turn, helps you relearn to drive, to shop, to cook...all the activities of daily living. It helps you learn to live your life again.
"Everybody that knows me and loves me noticed a huge difference when I started helping with this program," he said. "PHWFF became my mission. That's what I started living for, besides my family. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing really saved my life."
Even if they don't recover 100 percent, as participants become more adept at fly-fishing, they are also learning to adapt to their limitations and overcome them.
Fly-fishing and casting help to improve dexterity, depth perception, fine motor skills and balance as well as build strength.
"The first year after my injury, there was no function in my left hand," said retired U.S. Army Capt. David Folkerts. "But fly-fishing really helps, especially with all the fine motor finger movements. In fly-fishing, you learn to use all these little gadgets. It's helping me learn how to use what function I have left in my hand."
To master these skills, a wounded soldier must focus on how to present a fly instead of his or her pain and discomfort.
During a recent outing at Connetquot River State Park Preserve in New York, a member of the West Point Cadent Fly Fishing Club was paired with each injured soldier. Conversations about past missions were interspersed with queries about casting techniques.
Nearby, great blue herons were also fishing and mallard flew overhead. Miles away from the hospital and oceans away from the battlefield, the stream and damp woods provided a peaceful setting.
Along the way, participants realize the importance of these pristine waters and habitat for many of the species pursued by fly-casters.
In the future, they might return the favor by participating in activities that focus on healing these waters. Folkerts, for instance, is a new life member of Trout Unlimited.
This is quite a change for Folkerts, who grew in Nebraska, where there is no fly-fishing. He joined the program as a participant after an IED blast in 2005 in Iraq blew out an artery in his arm, cutting the nerves. He endured more than a dozen surgeries. After a year in the program as a patient, he succeeded Forseths as the PHWFF coordinator.
The program has helped others return to a beloved pastime. One soldier on the Connetquot trip brought his spin-casting fishing rod to Afghanistan when he was deployed as a member of Special Forces. His trigger finger was blown off and now, he doesn't have much feeling in his hand. Sure, daily ultrasounds break up the scar tissue, and heat treatments and strengthening exercises help, but fly-fishing, he noted, "sure beats playing with Silly Putty."
The Connetquot trip in New York was one of at least 100 nationwide fishing trips and multi-day wilderness river adventures offered by PHWFF, which has regional coordinators covering 32 states. But the project initially focused on the Chesapeake.
Military personnel in the District of Columbia area realized that the watershed provides an enormous playing field with its vast amount of streams and rivers, not to mention the Chesapeake. Most of these fishing trips are conducted about a half-day's travel from Walter Reed, within the Bay watershed. Participants start out trout fishing on the Potomac River, then move out to Yellow Breeches Creek in the Susquehanna watershed in Pennsylvania and saltwater fishing in the Bay.
These settings provide a sense of well-being that goes beyond the physical healing at Walter Reed.
Matthew St. Laurent, a former chief of occupational therapy at the hospital, said, "The stresses these warriors are under when they return from the Middle East is immense: dealing with their injuries, their combat experience, being separated then reunited with their families. Getting out to fly-fish and being surrounded by nature greatly reduces their anxiety.
"It gets them away from the hospital and provides important peer support with folks who also have limitations...They have unconditional support in this very safe environment. They find they can do some pretty challenging things, like move a wheelchair down to the streamside or get out into the middle of a stream with a leg prosthesis...They become so engaged...that they don't even realize they are achieving great rehab at the same time."
All activities and services are offered to the participants at no cost. Fly-fishing, tying equipment and other materials are also provided, including equipment that accommodates special needs.
The project relies on Federation of Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited and independent fly-fishing clubs. Trout Unlimited tries to contact the soldiers after they return home, and helps them find local clubs and chapters to encourage a lifelong passion for angling, as well as conservation.
"Without a doubt, PHWFF has turned nearly every man and woman wounded warrior into an avid supporter of wild places." Folkerts said, "You can't catch and release fly-fish in these beautiful places and not become aware of how important it is to preserve these streams and the sport. Every one becomes an environmentalist."
Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and unlike some children today, has a hard time coming indoors. She has written six books about it; her latest, from McGraw-Hill, is "Scraping Heaven: A Family's Journey Along the Continental Divide."