Fishing, hunting help injured veterans heal
By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY
Army Spc. Brett Wolf is one of those sportsmen who says hunting is about relaxing and hanging with other hunters, not just bagging a prize.
Still, he gleefully describes the spoils of his Halloween weekend hunt in Texas Hill Country: a wild hog — the first he'd ever seen — and a 200-pound whitetail buck. No matter that the terrain was rough on his wheelchair, or that his shooting arm has been operated on three times in 18 months.
Wolf, 26, lost both legs above the knee and suffered head and elbow injuries in Iraq when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded under his Humvee on Sept. 11, 2007.
PHOTOS: Outdoor therapy for wounded veterans
"Just because you can't walk around and do everything everybody else can, it doesn't mean you don't need to go and still enjoy yourself," he says.
Like many veterans hurt in Iraq or Afghanistan, Wolf is turning to rugged activities such as hunting and fishing to help heal physical and mental wounds. Groups such as the Armed Forces Foundation organize outings to get a growing number of veterans out of hospitals and sterile rehabilitation centers and into the therapeutic embrace of nature.
"There definitely has been a surge" in the number of programs and participation by veterans, says Patricia Driscoll, president of the Armed Forces Foundation. Outdoor activities help them cope with challenges from amputations and post-traumatic stress disorder to social isolation, she says.
Her group's programs are gaining popularity as hunting ranches offer free services, she says. Special equipment, such as hydraulic hunting stands that move up and down and accommodate wheelchairs, helps hunters overcome physical limitations.
"These guys start out very glum. They think, 'I can't do this. I'm not the way I used to be,' " Driscoll says. "Once we get them out there, they realize, 'I can still do this. This is exciting.' You just see their whole attitude change."
Sandy Trombetta, program director at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo., has been working with disabled veterans outdoors for 30 years. He is director of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.
Rafting, fishing, hiking and skiing provide exercise, fresh air, weight control and other benefits, he says. "It's health care outside of the hospital."
Wolf grew up on a Missouri farm, fishing and enjoying his favorite pastime, hunting.
Last weekend, he joined an Armed Forces Foundation group on a hunt at RecordBuck Ranch, west of San Antonio. Hunting can be physically taxing. He describes a previous outing when he climbed 10 feet up into a deer blind — a camouflaged structure — using prosthetic legs but he says the benefits are mostly mental.
William White, 48, of Southport, N.C., lost his 23-year-old son, Christopher Neal White, in Iraq in 2006. He decided to memorialize him by buying 170 acres in Farmington, Mo., naming it Chris Neal Farm and dedicating it to wounded vets.
White believes the best healing comes after the deer and turkey hunts he hosts for wounded veterans, when they gather around the campfire to share experiences — "the camaraderie of being together, of being able to discuss some of the issues in their lives, being able to forget what's going on."
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing has taken 2,000 disabled veterans fishing since 2005, founder Ed Nicholson says.
Fishing gives injured veterans an alternative to alcohol or other destructive behavior, says program manager David Folkerts, who uses a customized reel that allows him to cast and crank with one arm and one hand. Shrapnel from an IED in Iraq caused nerve and artery damage in his left arm.
"It played a big part in changing my mind-set from thinking about all the things I couldn't do to thinking about all the things I could do," he says.
Army Sgt. Keniel Martinez, 27, struggled with nightmares and panic attacks after returning from a tour in Iraq in 2006. A motorcycle accident last December tore all the ligaments in both of his knees.
Last month, he went fly-fishing with Healing Waters on the western shore of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. He hooked a rockfish, but it got away.
He says fly-fishing practice got him out of his hospital room and helped his body — and his mind — heal.
"They're teaching us to be independent again," he says. "My self-confidence has definitely gotten a boost out of it."