Every other week, a bus with 10 to 15 veterans from the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center pulls up to Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Libertyville, Ill. When the veterans arrive, there are handshakes and pats on the back all around as friends catch up and check in with each other. The gathered men and women come from four groups who get together for biweekly fly-fishing activities as part of the Project Healing Waters ministry at Holy Cross.

The group consists of the veterans, Holy Cross members, and representatives from local Trout Unlimited and Project Healing Waters chapters. The veterans, who all live at Lovell’s Community Life Center, are taught how to tie flies, cast and do some fly-fishing on their own.

The program also offers many social benefits, such as being involved in a community, as well as physical therapy benefits, especially dexterity as the veterans tie flies and cast. When the weather cooperates, they practice their skills at a nearby forest preserve.

Robert Davis, a pastor of Holy Cross, said the idea to start a Project Healing Waters chapter goes back about three years ago when the congregation was looking for new ministry opportunities. They learned that in their home of Lake County, more than 30,000 veterans are trying to resume a new normal after serving their country. He came across Project Healing Waters, a national organization that assists in emotional and physical rehabilitation for disabled veterans and active service personnel, and loved its intersection of physical therapy, social benefits and community building.

“This program gives veterans a chance to re-engage in community,” Davis said. “Volunteers from Holy Cross work with the veterans and start developing relationships. The whole experience, while providing many health benefits, feels less clinical. There’s something therapeutic about getting out into creation and defining a new normal.

“It’s powerful to be in community and have others care about you, and you caring about them in return.”

“This program gives veterans a chance to re-engage in community.” — the Rev. Robert Davis, Holy Cross Lutheran Church

Jeff Reinke, who works with the North Chicago chapter of Project Healing Waters, said to his knowledge this is the group’s only chapter that is associated with a church.

Project Healing Waters provides the high-level organization and veterans’ integration, members from Trout Unlimited provide the fly-fishing expertise, and Holy Cross provides volunteers and hospitality.

Randy Kuceyeski, a member of Holy Cross, has been a volunteer since the project started in spring 2016. “It’s fun to get out with everyone and a great way to connect and give the veterans something to do,” he said.

Typically, the day begins with a hospitality group from Holy Cross or a local Boy Scout troop serving lunch. Then, depending on the weather, the group gets down to business tying flies or heading to the water for some fly-fishing.

On a June day that had a forecast for rain, the group finishes lunch and gathers at tables while Darwin Adams from the local Trout Unlimited chapter sets up a sophisticated camera donated by a Holy Cross member. Using the camera and a large monitor, Adams walks the veterans through a fly-tying lesson.

The engagement in the room is captivating as many of the veterans who were quiet and uneasy at first now smile and open up as they work on making their flies. For those who have prosthetic limbs, local fly fishermen made devices that use magnets to help them tie flies.

One of the veterans, Glenn Cook, has come since the program started. Although he prefers regular fishing to fly-fishing, he enjoys the program’s community aspect: “It’s nice to come here and meet people.”

Donning a Project Healing Waters cap with a fly in it, veteran Darnell Jones focuses on creating a new fly. “I first started coming because I heard they had good food,” he quipped, “but now I come because it’s fun to get out and I’ve made friends here.” He nodded toward Kuceyeski.

Jones appreciates the community at the congregation and the conversations they have, saying he’s “more religious” than he used to be in his younger days.

“I’m not an experienced fisherman, no, no, but I’m learning how to do it and I’m learning how to tie flies—I’ve tied five so far,” he said, as he pulled out a small silver box with a photo on top. He uses the box, given to him and the other veterans as Christmas gifts from Holy Cross, to store his completed flies.

“It usually takes me about a half hour to tie one,” Jones said. “I just like coming and getting to enjoy everyone’s company.”

It just goes to show that, for this group, time flies when you’re tying flies.

Jonah Berg-Ganzarain
Jonah Berg-Ganzarain is a summer intern with ELCA Strategic Communications. He attends Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

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