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Fishing event therapeutic for combat veterans
Unicoi Outfitters, Trout Unlimited host river outing
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Project Healing Waters Augusta Program Lead Justin Walter, right, discusses his military service with Sam Blake, middle right, Friday in Helen.

Out on the water for a Friday afternoon, the bills and the laundry all slowly fade away along the Chattahoochee River.

“It gets their minds off of anything that’s bothering them, especially for those having bad dreams and thoughts,” participant Ted Jones said. “It gets them away from all that mess.”

For Veterans Day on Friday, Unicoi Outfitters and two Trout Unlimited chapters hosted a Project Healing Waters fly fishing event in Helen. The project began in 2005 to help combat veterans with the hobby.

“What we have to do sometimes is bridge the gap between someone’s disability and their abilities,” said Justin Walter, who is the program lead for the Augusta Project Healing Waters.

A local Project Healing Waters group meets at the Oakwood Department of Veterans Affairs clinic bimonthly. Organizers said there was an even split between older military conflicts such as Vietnam and more recent deployments like Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After three tours for himself between Afghanistan and Iraq, Walter would return to his old stomping grounds in the Sautee Valley for a time to decompress in the water.

“When I’d come home from the military, (my dad and I) would go out on a canoe on our lake and fish and spend time together, and that’s another great thing that fly fishing does for us. It gives us a common task to do together,” he said.

Roughly 45 people in total gathered behind the Habersham Winery to try their hand at the hobby. Each veteran was assisted by a guide from the Trout Unlimited chapter.

For certain veterans with physical disabilities, the sport allows them to work on motor skills in casting the line.

“If someone is recently amputated like some of my friends, it takes them a while to adjust to the use of a prosthetic limb,” Walter said.

Beyond the physical capabilities, the sport allows many of Walter’s fellow veterans to build camaraderie and confidence.

“The therapy translates to everyday skills,” he said. It gets people out there trying to improve their lives.”

After a tug on the line, Army veteran Sam Blake spent minutes trying to bring in a fish behind the Nora Mill Granary. The fish would eventually break free after guides inched closer with nets.

Blake said it was “definitely the biggest trout I’ve ever hooked” in his first time out with the group on Veterans Day.

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