On the water: Upstate veterans discover the healing power of fly-fishing

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Chuck Rouse, program lead for Project Healing Waters Upstate. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

It’s a cold October morning in the mountains between South Carolina and Georgia, and the faint sound of rushing water echoes through the trees as James Gillian hikes along a narrow trail in the Sumter National Forest. He’s heading for the nearby Chattooga River, a 57-mile waterway that’s considered by many to be one of the top trout-fishing locations in the Southeast.

As he reaches the river’s edge, Gillian, 52, grips his fly rod and enters knee-deep water, carefully making his way upstream in a pair of waders. Setting his feet, Gillian throws a line into the current and watches it drift by, repeating the motion for about 30 minutes or so until the line suddenly tightens. He’s got a bite. Gillian reels the fish in and lowers a scoop net into the water to examine his first catch of the day: a rainbow trout.

The fish is small, but Gillian isn’t disappointed. He’s not here to catch trophies. He’s here for treatment — to stave off unwanted flashbacks of the year he spent overseas fighting for the freedoms that so many Americans enjoy today.

Trouble on the home front 

A combat engineer in the U.S. Army during the Iraq War, Gillian witnessed and dealt with a lot of trauma while building infrastructure and patrolling streets throughout the Anbar Province, one of the deadliest areas for American service members. It took a personal toll.

When Gillian retired and returned home to South Carolina in 2005, he immediately felt the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. 

PTSD is a mental condition that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as war, according to Mayo Clinic. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. About 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans who served in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The biggest thing is the anxiety and panic attacks,” Gillian said, voice cracking. “Something as simple as hearing a car backfire can trigger a response.”

Piedmont resident James Gillian angles for trout on the Chattooga River. The 52-year-old is one of several Iraq War veterans participating in Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help disabled military personnel and veterans deal with the aftermath of injuries and re-entry to civilian life through the “therapeutic benefits of fly fishing.” Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Gillian, who became a self-described recluse, eventually sought help from Veterans Affairs. He now receives counseling every two weeks and enjoys the daily company of his support dog, a 3-year-old black Lab-German shepherd mix named Seven, which he received from Service Dogs for Veterans, located in Fountain Inn. He’s also joined a growing number of military veterans across the country who are using fly-fishing as a way to cope with PTSD and other disabilities.

In 2015, Gillian’s now ex-wife discovered Project Healing Waters during a visit to the Greenville Vet Center off Pelham Road and recommended that he join. The Maryland-based nonprofit, which began in 2005 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is “dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities.”

A sport of the mind 

From tying flies to building fly rods, Project Healing Waters teaches participants the basics of fly-fishing. All equipment is provided to the participants at no cost. The nonprofit also hosts daylong and overnight fishing expeditions free of charge. It operates 216 programs across 46 states, including South Carolina. More than 8,000 veterans participated in Project Healing Waters in 2017, according to the organization’s annual report.

Chuck Rouse, who oversees the Project Healing Waters program in the Upstate, said fly-fishing often provides disabled veterans a welcome distraction from their troubles. The Vietnam War veteran helped launch the program in 2014 alongside other members of Greenville’s Mountain Bridge Trout Unlimited, an anglers group dedicated to conserving freshwater fish and their habitat.

“There is nothing like catching a trout on a rod you have made and fly you have tied. … These activities all-combined free them from the terrors that haunt their mind and soul,” Rouse said. “The fly-fishing techniques also aid those who have physical disabilities. Fly-tying aids in the improvement of dexterity of the hands and fingers as well as concentration. We also have devices that provide for a person missing a hand or arm the ability to tie a fly and fish.”

Fly-fishing not only provides a therapeutic activity for veterans with PTSD but also helps improve dexterity of the hands and fingers as well as concentration, according to Chuck Rouse, coordinator of Project Healing Waters Upstate. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Rouse leads two instructional events each month in Greenville. He and several volunteers teach newcomers how to tie flies, an artificial lure that fishermen create to imitate natural insects and entice fish, and even build rods. The program also sponsors casting classes and hosts about 10 fishing expeditions each year in the Carolinas and Georgia.

About 10 to 15 veterans regularly participate in the program’s events, according to Rouse. Participants are referred to the program by Veterans Affairs and similar organizations, including Upstate Warrior Solution, a Greenville-based nonprofit that connects veterans and their families to resources and opportunities.

“It is a form of therapy but not a replacement for professional therapy,” Rouse said. “The veterans are encouraged to remain under their professional-care program.”

Last month, Rouse accompanied Gillian and three other disabled veterans on a half-day fishing excursion along the Chattooga River to put what they learned to the test — and to continue building relationships with others who are struggling since being out of the military.

Fly-fishing is an angling method in which an artificial “fly” is used to catch fish. The fly (pictured above) is cast using a fly rod, reel, and specialized weighted line. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Greer resident Pauline Callaham, who served as an aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Air Force during the Gulf War, declined to discuss her medical reasons for participating in the trip but said it was therapeutic to get outdoors and talk with other veterans. She joined Project Healing Waters earlier this year upon the recommendation of her counselor at the Vet Center.

Gillian said he continues to struggle with PTSD and spends most of his time at his home, which he considers a “secure space” free of triggers, such as loud noises and large crowds. The program, however, has allowed him to get outside, interact with others, and break out of his shell; he has gone from not being around a lot of people to smiling and laughing more often. 

The path to healing 

As Gillian and other veterans cast their lines into the Chattooga River last month, Rouse reflected from a distance. He, too, is familiar with fly-fishing’s healing properties and the struggles that military veterans face when returning from war.

“I have walked in their boots,” he said. “I know what they are feeling.”

In 1964, several weeks after graduating from Youngstown State University, Rouse received a draft notice but decided to enlist in the U.S. Army Security Agency instead. After completing basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and another six months of advanced schooling, he served two years in Vietnam after which he was transferred to Bad Aibling Station in southern Germany during the Cold War. He separated from the Army in 1968 and returned home. 

Despite having a degree in mechanical engineering, Rouse found himself struggling to adjust to civilian life and bounced around from town to town with his Army buddies, working odd jobs to earn money.

He eventually married, got a manufacturing job, and enrolled in night classes at the University of Pittsburgh, where he double majored in economics and psychology. But it wasn’t long after that Rouse began to experience the side effects of combat-related anxiety, including nightmares and explosive bouts of anger.

Greer resident Pauline Callaham, who served as an aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Air Force during the Gulf War, said she joined Project Healing Waters earlier this year to “find a peace of mind.” Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

While PTSD wasn’t formally recognized by the medical community until the 1980s, Rouse was able to find help through his academic adviser, who also happened to be the dean of the sociology department.

“He introduced me to the dean of the psychology department, and I would stop by after class and talk with them,” he said. “I think I was their project.”

Rouse said he regularly contemplates his wartime experiences but doesn’t let it affect his daily life. He theorizes that many veterans struggle with PTSD due to guilt that stems from their failure to accept that events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.

“Many people ask why they were spared, but there isn’t an answer to that question,” he said. “And if you can’t accept the fact that there’s no force making A or B happen, then it’s going to haunt you. We see it all the time.”

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Rouse launched a successful career in marketing and sales and eventually relocated to Greenville. It wasn’t long after that Rouse began researching fly-fishing and joined Mountain Bridge Trout Unlimited.

“I needed to know places to go, so I joined Trout Unlimited to learn the secret spots,” he said.

Project Healing Waters seeks to help disabled military personnel and veterans from all branches of service, from all generations, deal with the aftermath of injuries and re-entry to civilian life through the “therapeutic benefits of fly fishing.” Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Rouse spent several months learning about the sport and attending monthly meetings. But then a fellow member told him about Project Healing Waters. He was immediately hooked and decided to help launch the Upstate program. It has since served 60 to 70 veterans.

“It’s been exceptionally rewarding to watch this program change lives,” he said. “But it can be stressful at times.”

Like any nonprofit, Project Healing Waters relies on private donations, grants, and government funding to operate. Rouse raises about $15,000 a year locally to help defray the costs of his program, which also receives free fly-fishing equipment and guide services from outdoor retailers, including Cabela’s and Chattooga River Fly Shop in Mountain Rest.

Rouse said he plans to continue recruiting volunteers and raising funds. The program’s next fly-fishing trip will take place on Saturday, Nov. 17, along the Green River in North Carolina. All veterans or active-duty military with a disability are eligible to participate at no cost. For more information or to sign up, contact Chuck Rouse at crouse@earthlink.net or 864-335-8938.

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