Russ Ambrose was bitten by the fly fishing bug relatively early in life.
As a young Air Force cadet stationed in Idaho, Ambrose discovered the allure of tying flies and taking them to a trout stream, a place where he could lose himself in the rhythm of casting his line into the rushing water while engaging in the ancient battle between hunter and prey.
“Fly fishing, I don’t even call it a sport. It’s an art,” Ambrose said. “We have to go find where the trout are. We have to learn a little something about their habitat and know something about the trout, or else we’re slinging flies at the water all day and not doing anything.”As his military career unfolded, Ambrose moved from Europe to Southeast Asia and finally to the desert, and his passion for fly fishing faded into dormancy. He finally retired from the Air Force as a disabled veteran and worked in the private sector before retiring for good. Now located in Northeast Tennessee, Ambrose said he tried for about a year to adjust to the slower pace of retirement before his wife finally told him to get out of the house and find some people with common interests.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anybody around here that’s retired Air Force. Nobody speaks my language,’” Ambrose recalled. “So I went to the VA, and the gentleman said right there is where you need to go, Project Healing Waters.”
Project Healing Waters is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping disabled veterans transition to civilian life. When Ambrose walked into the classroom on the Mountain Home campus, his love for fly fishing was rekindled, but he also found a place to share his experiences with others who knew where he was coming from.
“Two years I spent as a participant to learn everything I could about fly fishing,” Ambrose said. “They gave me a place, they gave me people I could talk to, sit across the table and say, ‘This is my story,’ people that I would open up to and tell them my story.”
After two years as a participant, Ambrose took over as a Program Lead and held that job for three years before moving up to become a Regional Coordinator two years ago. Ambrose now oversees a region that stretches from Northeast Tennessee to Jonesboro, Arkansas, and he’s enjoying the opportunity to help veterans through fly fishing.
“I feel blessed to be doing what I’m doing,” Ambrose said. “I really enjoy it, and I love giving back.”
Like Ambrose, Jud Gee stumbled upon fly fishing almost by happenstance. It was about 10 years ago when one of Gee’s friends invited him out to try his hand with a fly rod. A resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, Gee immediately fell in love with fly fishing on the Wautaga River in Northeast Tennessee.
“I found that fly fishing, when you get out there on the water, that’s really all there is,” Gee said. “You’re really just out there in God’s country, in nature. It’s just you and the water and fishing. Everything just really kind of goes away.”The distraction of fly fishing certainly offered a refuge for Gee, who works in the high-pressure field of finance in Charlotte. Gee was never in the military, although his father and grandfather were. He was named after his grandfather Jud, who fought behind enemy lines during World War II.
Although Gee never served in the military, he did suffer a traumatic brain injury, and he found fly fishing to be very helpful as he traveled down the road to recovery. A little research opened Gee’s eyes to the struggles so many veterans face as a result of the traumatic brain injuries and PTSD that came as a result of their service. According to statistics from the National Center for PTSD, 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetimes, and an estimated 11 to 20 percent of veterans in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experience PTSD in a given year.
That spurred Gee on to get involved with Project Healing Waters, which uses fly fishing to help ease the effects of the unseen injuries that so many vets battle on a daily basis. Ambrose said every aspect of fly fishing – tying flies, building rods and perfecting the casting motion – is therapeutic to veterans trying to recover from brain injuries and work through emotional issues tied to PTSD.
“The situation they have is sometimes they can’t really coordinate their hands any longer because of a brain injury and maybe the PTSD,” Ambrose added. “They’re nervous and they just need to calm down and settle. That’s where fly tying comes in. It really helps that cognitive work they do there.
“Once we get them trained and to the water, that’s when everything else goes away. The therapy, just the physical part of it, wrapping those threads around the hook is tedious, and you have to think.”
When veterans in Ambrose’s program are ready to go to the river, Gee ensures that they have a peaceful place to go and become one with nature. Gee owns a camp along the Watauga River called Camp Stonefly, which serves as a perfect place for the healing to commence. According to Ambrose, it doesn’t take long for the water to work its magic.
“If you’ve been in the program for six months, you’ve seen a lot of change,” Ambrose said. “These guys are continuously getting better. If they’re not, we’re not doing our job.”
Gee, now a Program Lead in Charlotte, recounted a story of a veteran who came to the program a while back. His first day on the water, the young man was a bundle of nerves, so he spent much of the morning helping a volunteer deliver nets and food to some of the participants downstream.
After a few moments of watching the other participants fish, the young man asked for a rod of his own and began fishing. The next day, Gee received an email from the young man.
“He said, ‘I haven’t felt like that in I don’t know how long,’ ” Gee recounted. “It’s just amazing to see what this is doing for our vets.”
To find out more about the Tennessee Valley chapter of Project Healing Waters, visit projecthealingwaters.org.