Project Healing Waters: Helping wounded soldiers, veterans heal through fly fishing

In April 2005, less than two months into his first deployment to Iraq, the battlefield dreams of now-retired Capt. David Folkerts were cut short by an improvised explosive device (IED) bomb blast. He would undergo emergency surgery in Baghdad to save his left arm before being medically evacuated to Germany and then the U.S. for additional procedures.

After arriving in the states, Folkerts was an inpatient for a few months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before taking leave in his home state of Nebraska. Over the ensuing months and years, doctors performed more surgeries to repair the nerve damage done to Folkerts’ hand by the IED before he was medically retired from the U.S. Army in January 2008.

“I never felt like I was able to complete what I set out to do as a military officer,” Folkerts told

Over the course of his recovery, Folkerts encountered other wounded warriors, who, like him, had been scarred by the hell of war. One particular officer’s recovery stood out to him among the rest, as during their first encounter at Walter Reed, Folkerts recalled him being depressed, angry and bitter. However, when Folkerts returned to the center the following year, the officer had undergone a complete transformation.

“I met him again, and he was this really happy, outgoing, jovial guy,” Folkerts said. “He said, ‘Hey, man, I’ve been fly fishing, you’ve got to get with this group called Project Healing Waters.’”

Strength in numbers

For Capt. Kimberly Smith, there was no plan B when it came to deciding on her future; the military was her one true calling.

“My father was in Korea, and did two tours and had a Purple Heart, and so my brother and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. He passed away when we were 10,” Smith told “That’s all I ever wanted to do, was be a Marine.”

Smith became the first female to be deployed with an Infantry Battalion in 2009 when she was sent to Afghanistan. Throughout the course of her military service, she endured six concussions, and was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I ended up at Bethesda and Belvoir, [and] kind of like a lot of Marines have, you’re injured and you don’t say anything,” Smith told

Smith was also diagnosed with auditory processing disorder as a result of her injuries, forcing her to depend on an amplifier and a recording device, and attend speech therapy sessions multiple times a week.

“I ended up having a lot of seizures, and one seizure was like a stroke,” Smith said. The former collegiate athlete and black belt martial arts instructor’s recovery included time at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, Ga., where she completed a grueling five-day-a-week, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule of intense therapies.

“They have an hour blocked off, and I grew up playing sports, and I played rugby in college and played for the U.S. team, and [therapists] said, ‘All right, well we’re going to do painting,’ and I don’t have any arts in me,” Smith told

A member of Smith’s family had turned to the web for research on brain injuries and motor skill therapies, and told her to ask if there was a fly fishing program available.

“I asked the U.S.O. (United Service Organization) officer if they offer fly fishing when we went to go painting, and she said, ‘Well, actually, we do. There’s a program called Project Healing Waters,’” Smith said.

‘It felt like home’

“I didn’t even want to give it a try because my hand was still damaged due to the nerve damage from the shrapnel,” Folkerts said of Project Healing Waters. “I thought it would be too difficult, and I was worried about trying something new and not being good at it, and being further depressed about my situation.”

A fellow soldier kept pushing Folkerts to try it, and when he did, he learned how to cast and was outfitted with a special reel so that he could crank the line with one hand. He gained the confidence he needed and was ready to go out on his first outing with the group to a fresh water hatchery on New York’s Long Island.

“I caught my first brook trout, pulled this thing out of the water and I thought it was so beautiful,” he said. “Something just clicked in me.”

After that first trip with Project Healing Waters, Folkerts began attending every event he could make, and helping out in any way he could. In 2007 he was sent out on a five-day wilderness trip in Montana where he floated down the Smith River with other wounded veterans. They fished together during the day and were responsible for setting up their own camp at night.

“We’d sit around the camp fire and share our stories— war stories and issues we were having. To have that camaraderie, which is what I kind of missed about being in the military unit, that helped with the switch in my head— all the negative things, the things that I had been through, the horrific incident itself, the memory of getting blasted, fear of dying, things that go along with a horrible incident like that,” Folkerts said.

“I’ve seen the transformation that’s seen in individuals coming from that dark place and seeing the light on the other side,” he said of the organization. “Obviously it doesn’t work for everyone— it’s not a cure all— but for those that get it, it makes a huge difference in our lives.”

Smith walked into the room for her first class with Project Healing Waters accompanied by her service dog, Shian, and was also unsure of what to expect.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about fly fishing, but I’d like to learn because it’s got to be better than arts and crafts,’” Smith said. “Next thing you know, I’m sitting down and they had a vice in front of me, and all these guys knew what they were doing, and by the end of the night I had tied my first tie, which I’ve kept with me.”

Smith was hooked from the first class. “It was just amazing; it felt like home,” she said.

“I immediately called my family and was just like, ‘I am just smiling and I’m so happy,’” Smith said. “I don’t know what just happened, but I wish I had this every night because I’d be there every night. I just lit up like a Christmas tree, and I hadn’t been like that in so long, and I had something to look forward to and to get through the week. “

“It gave me the strength to go finish another week of what you’re going to face. It just takes away all the struggles and the pain,” Smith said.

‘Project Healing Waters family’

Since 2005, Project Healing Waters has served as a place of healing for both active-duty service personnel and veterans. The nonprofit runs in all 50 states, offering more than 180 programs that meet on a weekly basis with fishing trips and an annual 2-Fly tournament, which relies solely on volunteers and donations.

From fly fishing 101 to group outings, military members are treated to one-on-one training and guidance from fishermen enthusiasts and fellow soldiers. The program provides basic fly fishing, fly casting, fly tying and rod building classes, as well as clinics with participants ranging from beginners who have never fished before, to those with prior fly fishing and tying experience who are adapting their skills to their new abilities. All fly fishing and tying equipment is provided to the participants at no cost. Fishing trips and multi-day outings are also provided free of charge to participants.

“What we see a lot of is many men and women who join our program as participants eventually become volunteers. They see the impact it’s had on their own personal lives, and feel compelled to share that with their own military family,” Daniel Morgan, director of communications at Project Healing Waters, told

“So much of the healing happens through camaraderie— through team and friendships,” Morgan said. “Our belief is really that helping and healing disabled veterans is not a one-time event. We are mentors, healers and friends on their journey,” he said.

This spring, Project Healing Waters is hosting its ninth Annual 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farms, which will include a dinner, keynote speakers, a silent auction and a fly-fishing tournament.  The tournament will feature up to 24 teams, with 12 teams comprised of two veterans and a professional fly-fishing guide and the other 12 made up of two amateur fly anglers.

“After these nine years, it has a family reunion atmosphere,” Morgan said of the tournament. “I’ve used the term ‘Project Healing Waters family,’ and nowhere is that more true than at the 2-Fly Tournament.”

Folkerts and Smith are planning to attend the event, which will be held in April.

“I will be there. I even told them I’ll be the trash picker-upper. I’ll do anything,” Smith said.

For Folkerts, who contemplated a job in government after his retirement and ultimately wound up with Project Healing Waters, attending is almost like a homecoming.

“It’s a lot of hard work: Nonprofit work in general is a lot of extra hours wearing a lot of hats, doing whatever is necessary to get the job done. It’s so fulfilling to see the impact we have,” Folkerts said.

“It’s given me an opportunity to give back and help out other vets,” Folkerts said. “In many ways, I feel like I’m taking care of troops, but now I’m taking care of veterans, disabled vets through this program.”

The creators of Project Healing Waters believe that it’s the group’s mission to heal and the dedication of their volunteers that helps to set them apart from others.

“It was not a shake your hand and send you on your way,” Folkerts said. “It’s about the long-term relationship.”