- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) - The scene was the picture of tranquility: A group of Vietnam War veterans and several fly fishing guides casting into a pond at Washington Farms, just up the hill from GC&P; Road.

It was late in the day and the sun bathed the freshly mowed hills, horse paddock and large private homes in a soft, golden light. It was quiet, save for the occasional swish of a fly rod and the gurgling of a fountain in the center of the pond.

The sounds were part of a program called “Project Healing Waters,” for veterans to have a place of refuge, where they can catch fish, enjoy some camaraderie and temporarily forget the horrors of war.

It is a national program with a chapter coming to Wheeling in 2012 through the efforts of Bryan Kubisiak. He is a 70-year-old who gets excited when extolling the virtues of fly fishing. Inflecting his voice and punctuating sentences with animated hand gestures, he is both the founder and program leader for the Wheeling chapter of the organization.

Project Healing Waters is a national non-profit, with 180 programs throughout the 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia. It was started in 2005 by retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson from Wadsworth, Ohio. He was a Vietnam veteran at Walter Reed Hospital for medical testing, and he saw the active-duty wounded soldiers there.

“They were having a tough time,” Kubisiak said. “Amputations. Post traumatic stress. Traumatic brain injury. And he thought, ‘I wonder if they would like to go fly fishing?’ Well the colonel there in charge of the therapy department came on board and he was a fly fisher also. So in 2005, the first program started at Walter Reed. Ten years later here we are today in all 50 states.”

Kubisiak proudly points out there are only six paid staff members in the entire organization, which is headquartered in Waldorf, Md. The organization receives no federal funding and all the money it uses is raised by members. It does not cost a veteran anything to participate, as fly rods are provided, as is fly-tying equipment should veterans choose to learn to tie their own lures.

Kubisiak usually does not fish during outings. Even mild exertion leaves him sweating and short of breath - the result, he said, of heart damage from exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical that was used to defoliate forested areas of Vietnam. He manages the best he can, though an unused canoe sitting behind his house is a poignant reminder of his physical limitations and retirement dreams deferred.

He said his involvement with Project Healing Waters has helped him tremendously.

Kubisiak came home from Vietnam a troubled man, even if he did not admit it - even to himself. But it was obvious to those around him: The heavy drinking. The argumentative behavior. The collapse of his marriage. Every year during the anniversary of the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive he would not leave his house for a week, sometimes not even changing his clothes.

He recalled going on a date at Oglebay Park, sitting in the grass and enjoying the pastoral setting like people in the area like to do. He did not know they were about to set off fireworks by Schenk Lake. When the first one was launched it sounded just like a mortar firing, he said. And the white flash lit up the evening sky just like an “illumination flare.”

Kubisiak immediately pushed his date to the ground and shouted “incoming.” He was dragging her toward cover and looking for comrades to return fire before he came to his senses.

That was their only date, he said wryly.

After 20 years of ignoring the symptoms, Kubisiak marched off to the Wheeling Vet Center, where he was promptly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder - what would have been referred to as “shell shock” in an earlier era. He was incredulous, but decided to do something about it.

“I had heard about Project Healing Waters … and I had been a fly fisherman, and I wasn’t comfortable being on the stream by myself. So I just gave up hunting and fishing and just became somewhat of a recluse. And I decided that being in my late 60s it was time to do what I enjoy. So I looked into it and saw what they had to offer. I believed in Project Healing Waters and decided to start the program at the Wheeling Vet Center.”

During the three years of its existence he said membership has remained steady at about 12 members. Virtually all have been Vietnam War veterans, save for one veteran of the Six-Day War - the third in a series of Arab-Israeli wars. Money is raised through fundraisers to take fishing trips, such as an upcoming one in June to Pocahontas County, W.Va.

The best part, Kubisiak said, is seeing the veterans lose themselves in a pleasant activity.

“People that have come to me and said, ‘Barney, I’m having fun. I needed this. It’s helping me heal. Just, thank you. Hey, when are we going again?’ Or, ‘I finally learned to tie this particular knot.’ It’s that sense of accomplishment. Or, catching a fish on a fly that you have tied yourself. Probably all these vets have had that experience,” he said.

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Information from: The Intelligencer, https://www.theintelligencer.net

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