Written by: Donny Richard, Brattleboro Retreat
[Editor’s note: September 11 is not just a day to remember the victims of the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. It’s also a time to think about the incredible work our first responders did on that Tuesday morning and continue to do every day of the year. This post from last year focuses on a program that helps first responders through fly fishing. The program is still ongoing.]
If you happened to be driving down Rt. 103 in Cavendish, Vermont, on the second Saturday in June this past summer, you might have been tempted to peek down into a section of the Black River known as “freight train hole.” If you did, you might have caught a glimpse of what looked like a group of friends out for a beautiful evening of fly fishing.
That assumption would have been correct. What you could not have known was that the group of ten friends had started out the weekend as strangers. But they were strangers with a common bond: all had participated in a specialized treatment and training program for first responders and veterans struggling with PTSD and addiction at the Brattleboro Retreat’s Uniformed Services Program (USP).
They’d each returned to Vermont to help sustain their mental health by taking part in USP’s Alumni Fly Fishing Weekend. During their time with USP, each individual had been introduced to therapeutic fly-fishing—a program run by USP treatment-team member Ryan Heck and partially funded by Orvis and the Boston Red Sox Foundation. It was designed as a wellness and mindfulness based activity to reduce symptoms of PTSD.
This particular group of police officers, firefighters, and combat veterans from five different states had not just come together to hone their casting and fly-tying skills and to enjoy a weekend of comradery on the river. They were also moving forward on their journey toward wellness by practicing the art of focused relaxation.
Many of us are aware that fly fishing has had a long tradition of providing relief from stress and anxiety. It allows us to engage with nature and enjoy a respite from our “tech-driven” lives.
I was honored to witness firsthand the healing powers of angling in people who are battling back from severe cases of PTSD. This type of focused recreation allows for present-moment, mind body awareness that helps strengthen concentration, improve positive thinking, and dash the negativity associated with PTSD.
“It somehow focuses your mind on just this one thing, and really everything else just gets out of the way,” explained Heck. “It helps people connect to themselves and the present moment and gets the guys out of their own self narrative.”
But it’s more than that. The trip is also about bonding.
“It really helps to know that there are other people struggling out there in a lot of the same ways I was” said one participant. “And that there is something we can do about it.”
It’s also about learning to trust again.
“The imaginary force field that I wear around me all the time,” said one veteran, “started to come down this weekend.”
Of course, one weekend of fly-fishing will not completely heal a person’s trauma. Nor does it have to. It only has to instill hope—hope that there is life beyond trauma and that people who suffer are not alone. This is what happened on the Black River that weekend. Hope and healing through fly-fishing and comradery. The magic is real!
I also want to send a shout out to Orvis and The Red Sox Foundation for their ongoing support of the USP’s therapeutic fly-fishing program, and more important, for helping to improve the lives of the men and women who serve our country and our communities every day.
Donny Richard is an Outreach Representative for the Uniformed Services Program at the Brattleboro Retreat.