May 30th, 2005

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Take a Wounded Warrior Fishing
By John Colburn (Phly Tyer)

Thanks to television, we all know the latest count of service men and women who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. What the TV reporters don't tell us is that at least ten are wounded for every one killed, and of the nearly 20,000 wounded, many have lost arms or legs or suffered wounds that will prevent them from using or limit the use of their hands or feet-often for the rest of their lives.

These wounded warriors are in military and veterans' hospitals across the country, many of them far from their homes and families, and being stuck in a hospital for months of rehabilitation is a fate they don't deserve. Watching TV, reading, playing cards or video games, or sleeping can get old pretty fast, and trips away from the hospital are pretty hard to arrange because of the limited staff available.

Here's where fly fishers can really be useful in the rehabilitation of these wounded warriors: Go to the nearest military or veterans' hospital and talk to the rehabilitation and MWR (morale-welfare-recreation) staff and offer to take one or two out for a day or half a day on fishing trip. Find out what limitations the men and women have-what they are capable of doing and what you can do to make the outing a pleasant one.

Don't plan on going to your favorite mountain stream because wheelchairs, crutches, and artificial legs don't work very well on the rough terrain along most streams. Find a lake or pond where the warriors can get to the bank and fish for bluegills and other panfish and maybe bass or trout.

Plan on spending a little time teaching them to cast-nothing special, just a simple pick up and lay down cast of 35 or 40 feet will get the fly to where the fish are on most any water. Save the double hauls and fancy casts for later.

You'll probably have to furnish the fishing outfit, but your fly fishing club may have rods and reels that you can borrow. An 8 or 9 foot, 5 or 6 weight rod and a single action reel loaded with a weight forward floating line, a leader, and backing; a spool of tippet material, and a small box of flies will suffice for starting. A nipper or fingernail clipper, a forceps, and a small towel for hand wiping will complete the outfit. Remember, you're not going to try to set any world record or catch enough fish to feed everyone-you're just going to let the warriors have fun and maybe catch a few fish.

Now for the wounded who can't get out and go fishing, you might start a fly tying class. Fly tying can have definite value in the rehabilitation of those who have suffered hand and arm injuries. The fine motor skills used in fly tying may help in recovering the use of the hand and arm. Talk to the rehab staff and maybe give them a demonstration so they can see what's involved.

The Introduction to Fly Tying booklet published by the Federation of Fly Fishers is a good, inexpensive text to use. It's available through the FFF web site (www.fedflyfishers.org) for $2.00 plus shipping. Your FFF club can get quantities of the booklet at a discount.

The tools and materials needed to tie the flies in the booklet are relatively inexpensive. If you explain to your local fly tackle shop owner what you planning, you may be able to get a reduced price or even a donation.

The vise for most warriors can be one of the simpler ones similar to the old faithful Thompson A. However, an inexpensive rotary vise like the Dan vise or Griffin's Odyssey might be needed in some cases. C-clamp vises will probably suffice, but pedestal based vises will allow almost any flat surface to be used for tying.

The other tying tools: scissors, whip finisher, hair stacker, hackle pliers, and bobbin should be good but not fancy. Bobbin threaders can be the "dental floss threaders" from the local drug store-three bucks buys a lifetime supply for several people, and a bodkin is just a fairly stout needle in a handle, preferably one that is not round so it won't roll off the tying bench.

Get sufficient materials so that your students will be able to practice tying between class sessions and provide each student with his or her own packet of materials. They may not be able to get together for tying sessions. Also, provide a container for all the materials and tools because storage space is often limited in hospital rooms.

Remember the "KISS" principle in teaching fly fishing and tying to these wounded warriors-Keep It Simple, Stupid. You will be working with people who have a full load of difficulties and trauma; don't add to that load. You want to give them something to do to relieve the monotony of the hospital and teach them a hobby that they can enjoy the rest of their lives.

Regardless of your opinions about the current or previous conflicts, don't burden these young men and women with those. Share your pleasure of fly fishing and tying with them and let them know that you care. ~ John Colburn (Phly Tyer), The Soldiers' Home Washington, DC

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