ROSMAN, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — In western North Carolina, veterans turned back the clock to peacetime. When they return to civilian life, servicemen and women often feel lonely and lost.
“Especially those of us who have seen things that have stayed with us, and haunted us at times, they don’t go away, but they are mediated by comradery,” said Joseph Parente, the Charlotte program leader for the nonprofit Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.
When Queen City News met them in September, they waded to a soothing along the French Broad River in Transylvania County.
“I’ll try not to fall in,” Peter Chryst says, navigating his way carefully to a fishing spot.
The sound of the river is like a familiar voice the heroes long to hear. Chryst served in the Marines and Army National Guard.
“It’s enabled me to heal,” he told Queen City News.
Fly fishing gives disabled veterans a feeling of fellowship again.
“It just touches you in a place that’s just different from any other sport, I think,” Parente said. “The tranquility, the peace, and the connection with nature, we’re in the water, with the fish.”
“So whenever you need to put more line out, just reel it out here and cast it out,” an outfitter tells Army vet Cameron Clark.
For Clark, the calming influence is refreshing after all he’s been through.
“You know, firefights, a couple of this, a couple of thats,” he says, summarizing a couple of deployments.
He was diagnosed with PTSD.
“After my service, I kind of fell into a dark place, isolated myself for a while, lost connection with the people that were around me,” said Clark.
“You alienate yourself from your family and friends,” Chryst says.
After he returned from Iraq, drinking was Chryst’s self-destructive escape for a decade. He hopes younger vets find their way to Healing Waters like he did.
“A lot of veterans nowadays are self-medicating and they’re finding a way through alcohol or through drugs to deal with their problems,” said Chryst. “This is a real good place to have something different or an alternative to that.”
Veterans of all ages carry a heavy load after their service.
“And some of them are very young men, carry a very heavy load. And we owe it to them to try and help them to rehabilitate and find the things that are missing in their lives,” Parente says.
Every catch can be an emotional release.
“That’s it, nice! Reel, reel, reel!” the outfitter says, excitedly guiding Cameron after his first bite. “And if he starts pulling real hard, we’ll take our hand off the rod.”
“It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush and peace because it gives you some focus,” said Cam.
“Woo!” he exclaims, with his first catch and release of the day.
“Feels great! First big trout. There you go, we’ll let this guy go,” he says, releasing the trout back into the French Broad.
“That twinkle in the eye, you become a little boy again. And don’t we all want that?” Parente says.
The size of the fish doesn’t even matter. At the end of the day, at the end of the line, the expedition gives them far more than what they were fishing for.
“Finding a group and being part of something is definitely the right answer,” Cam says.
“Just a great place to fish today,” said Parente.
For more on Project Healing Waters, please click here.