Project Healing Waters reels in results with disabled, active vets
By Anthony Welch
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. (PHWFF) is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing.
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization originated at Walter Reed Amy Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in 2005. Now, there are more than 206 operational programs serving disabled vets and military personnel from all 50 states and Germany. Injuries PHWFF participants are coping with are post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, lost range of motion and other injuries suffered while serving the country.
The local program includes around 200 volunteers that serve approximately 400 veterans, according to Andy Koloski, assistant program lead for Project Healing Waters. Of those, roughly 40 percent of the veterans and a third of the volunteers are over the age of 50.
From May through October, PHWFF hosts 50 trips to fish everywhere from Tarryall Reservoir, the South Platte, Arkansas River, areas in Summit County, even Wyoming along with a slew of other places, Koloski said. Those trips include single or multiday excursions. Day outings often include breakfast in route, fishing until lunch time, a picnic or barbecue and then more fishing until around 4 p.m.
During the offseason, PHWFF offers 17 weeks of classes from fly tying to rod building and fly casting. The organization also hosts a veterans meeting every month.
“We’re very active year-round with these activities,” Koloski said. “We fish all these incredible places, and there’s absolutely zero cost to the veterans, which is truly amazing.”
Charitable donations and multiple sponsorships enable the organization to serve veterans and military personnel and not charge a dime. Participants are equipped to become life-long fly fishing anglers and are given a rod, reel, line and accessories. Donations and volunteers are always welcome, Koloski added.
“You don’t have to be a fly fishing expert to help,” Koloski said. “We have people that help with transportation or help cook.”
Since 2007, the Colorado Springs branch of PHWFF has grown into one of the largest of the 206 programs because of the close ties to the military community. The local program has seen an 600 percent increase in participants since 2013.
PHWFF has a presence at Fort Carson with the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit, Koloski mentioned. The organization has also partnered with the Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center and has had an office space there since January.
“We have seen an increase getting the message out about the program from just foot traffic alone,” Koloski said.
He was already an avid fly fisherman, but discovered a new joy of teaching the sport to veterans. Koloski, who attended West Point, found out about Project Healing Waters and immediately wanted to volunteer.
“A month later, I was teaching Vietnam Veterans, guys the age of my dad, to fly fish for the first time,” he said. “It was really cool.”
It wasn’t long before Koloski witnessed the true impact the program had on disabled veterans and active military personnel.
“It was eye-opening to me. I went to a training event, and one guy had a tough time with PTSD and had been locked away in his house,” he said. “We have people that this program has quite literally saved their lives. One guy’s wife found him hanging, and he was near dead. Now, he he’s active in the program and says it’s one of his reasons to live.”