With rods and reels, clear water and quiet conversation, a new local program is helping veterans heal
It’s a calm summer night on the James River, and the downtown Lynchburg skyline is hazy and shimmering in the early evening sun. Four guys load up a couple of jon and drift boats with fishing tackle and push off the Amherst County boat ramp.
They steer upstream, passing under the John Lynch Memorial Bridge and navigate the rocky shallows toward the base of the dam where they anchor for a while, bait hooks, and cast off into the river.
This fishing trip is just a fishing trip, really. A couple of hours on the river, a few nibbles, a small catch or two.
Except, in a quiet and unassuming way, this fishing trip is so much more: All but one of the four is a veteran, and this particular fishing trip is part of a national program that’s new to Lynchburg called Project Healing Waters.
Founded in 2005, the program’s goal is to teach disabled veterans how to fly fish, rehabilitating their physical and mental health.
The program provides everything, so there’s no charge whatsoever to the participant. There are frequent local trips, plus larger regional outings or even expeditions outside of the United States.
The leader of the group, Zack Brown, is quick to point out he’s not a veteran. But in his line of work, he’s met a lot of vets who have struggled with the transition back to civilian life, and as of this year, he’s the local chapter director for Project Healing Waters.
“I work for Columbia Gas, and we’re part of a team called NiVets [Columbia Gas kept its name locally when NiSource purchased the company in 2000]—basically, we’re just trying to help veterans out. I was trying to find an organization that could align with me. I ran into Project Healing Waters and started working with the old program leader [for Central Virginia],” says Brown.
When that leader stepped down, he passed along Brown’s name as a replacement.
Besides a passion for helping veterans, Brown brings a lifelong love of fishing to the program, a love that started where he grew up below Monticello. “Ever since I could carry a tackle box … we had a farm pond at the base of the mountain,” Brown remembers.
“So as soon as my mom let me carry my stuff, I’d walk up there every single day after school and catch little fish.”
Brown’s entire family is in the military, “so I’ve seen it firsthand too,” he says.
Then in recent years, he has watched his colleague and Project Healing Waters assistant Robert Davis deal with civilian life after combat.
“It’s just a small way to help somebody. It doesn’t help everybody but I said, you know, shoot, I can take these guys fishing, get their minds off of things, get them outside, get them away from stuff,” says Brown. “And it helps some. I mean it doesn’t help them all but it does… it does help.”
Another guy on the water is Toby Williamson—tall, with a bushy red beard, and a Marine Corps tattoo on his calf. He joined the Marine Corps in 2000, fresh out of high school, and very quickly got caught up in the whirlwind of post-9/11 overseas offensives.
On his first tour, he had one of the jobs most kids don’t imagine they’ll face when they sign up—among other billets throughout his career, Williamson was assigned to mortuary affairs where he and his team were assigned the heavy responsibility of gathering their fallen comrades off the battlefield. This was in Fallujah, a particularly bloody site during the early 2000s, and the things he saw will stay with him forever.
“I did not do well in the transition to civilian life,” says Williamson. After that first tour—literally a couple of weeks afterward—he enrolled at Liberty University.
“That was a quick transition that I was not prepared for,” he says. “Within a few weeks, I had to drop out. I was home for about six months when I volunteered for another tour of duty—the only way I knew how to function was in chaos.”
Williamson signed up for a second tour. He says he didn’t know how to cope with student life, but he also didn’t want mortuary affairs to be his only experience serving his country. “I was able to see a lot more of the angles of war. I worked a lot with the civilian population, the local Iraqis. My team was responsible for winning the hearts and minds [of the people there],” Williamson says.
He’s not shy about his diagnosis. “While I did not suffer any physical wounds, or physical trauma, I do suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he explains. “Which is becoming a lot more talked about, a lot more accepted in society. As far as folks coming back from war, the thing that affects them most is the mental side. It’s a lot harder to address. There’s a stigma.”
He knows he’s lucky he’s been able to face his struggles head on. Some of his comrades made it back from war, but couldn’t deal with the memories. “It’s part of my healing process to talk about it.”
Project Healing Waters does a good job of understanding that, and of offering activities that get you out in nature … you know, fishing is meant to be peaceful,” says Williamson.
In fact, talking about it is his job now, literally. A resource officer with the Virginia Department of Veteran Services, Williamson travels around the Commonwealth to talk to vets about the transition to civilian life and about how to cope with life after combat.
While he stresses that he’s not endorsing Project Healing Waters as an agency officer, he says fishing fits well in his own personal healing journey—and it’s something that fits well with what he tells veterans.
“It’s been a slow go … We’ve only had a handful of trips so far,” Brown says of the five months he’s been heading up the local program chapter. “It’s a brand-new program here in Lynchburg … it’s hard to reach out to veterans.”
As Williamson can attest, many veterans are reluctant to talk about their struggles at first.
That’s why Brown is working hard to spread the word so more local vets can enjoy the peace of the river and the company of folks who share similar experiences.
At the end of the night, the boats turn back for shore. The guys pull the boats up out of the water, shoot the breeze for a few minutes, shake hands and head for home. Nothing’s changed: the memories are still there, under the surface, and the demands of home and civilian life haven’t abated.
But for a couple of hours, the calm of the river took their minds off it all, just a bit.