Veterans seek camaraderie and time being with other veterans

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The tranquility of a peaceful spring evening at Josephine Pond is a far cry from the battlefields of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead of hearing the pop of gunfire, more than a dozen veterans last week listened to the birds chirp and traded stories as they cast their lines into the small pond behind the Wayside Inn in hopes of landing a trout – a welcome respite for some of America’s heroes.

“It’s very rewarding and uplifting,” said George Kincannon, a retired Army first sergeant.

A national program with small chapters across the country, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing brings together disabled veterans from all branches of the military twice a month for an evening of fly fishing and conversation that doubles as a form of rehabilitation. The organization is one of many aiming to ease the transition back to civilian life and help veterans deal with grief and loss they experienced while serving in combat.

“It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in an activity that needs your focus and not think about anything else,” said Bill Manson, program leader for Project Healing Waters’ Fitchburg chapter. “It’s something that pays dividends.”

Many of the close to 20 veterans that participate in the Fitchburg chapter suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Joe Young, a retired sergeant major with the Massachusetts National Guard, is one of those veterans. He said spending an evening fishing and socializing with his fellow veterans keeps his mind away from his memories of the battlefield during two deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2005.

“Everybody just melds together,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the world. When you get together, it’s like you never left each other.”

Young, who spent 42 years in the National Guard, served for 24 months in Iraq and said there was heavy fighting during his second deployment, which took its toll. Young learned of Project Healing Waters while on a group hike with Manson and felt the companionship of his fellow veterans would help be a distraction from his PTSD.

“It wasn’t about tying the flies, it was about being with the veterans,” said Young, who lives in Orange.

Patrick Donahue, an Air Force veteran who served in the Vietnam War, also finds comfort being surrounded by his fellow veterans.

“It’s a good bunch of guys,” he said while holding his line in the water waiting for a fish to bite. “It’s a good program. It allows you to keep your head clean when you’re down and depressed. This is what you need – the camaraderie.”

It is not uncommon for veterans to isolate themselves and not seek out help upon leaving their unit and returning to civilian life.

“Every veteran experiences grief and loss in a different way,” said Dave Heilman, readjustment counseling therapist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Community Access Point. “The hardest step for a vet to take is the first step. It goes completely against the warrior ethos.”

Heilman, a Marine Corps veteran, noted it can be difficult for veterans to let their guard down and express their feelings after leaving the comfort and camaraderie of their units.

“That family kind of gets ripped away from you,” said Heilman.

Heilman often advises those struggling with loss to memorialize fellow soldiers killed in war by writing letters to them. For others, it is easier to open up in a group setting.

Nicholas Charbonneau, Marlborough veterans service officer, often refers clients to programs like Project New Hope; Team Red, White and Blue; and the Vets Center in Worcester where they can interact and heal alongside other veterans.

“It can be isolating,” Charbonneau, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, said of returning home. “It’s always nice to have some peer support. The readjustment is really challenging due to the fact (that) you truly trust the people to your left and right. You go through a lot together.”

Justin Sousa, director of the Central Massachusetts Veterans Service District, said it is often difficult for civilians to comprehend what military members experience in battle, which is why many veterans seek out programs and organizations run by veterans.

One of those programs is the aforementioned Project New Hope, which was started by Air Force veteran Bill Moore. The Worcester-based organization offers free three-day retreats featuring speakers on a variety of topics, including PTSD. All the speakers are veterans.

“It’s veterans for veterans,” said Moore. “As veterans, we’ll always bond with one another.”

Veterans’ spouses are invited to attend the retreats.

“It’s a network of support for veterans and spouses,” he said.

Project New Hope believes in the healing power of mutual support, targeted services and the camaraderie of friends.

“We want to give them the tools to move forward,” said Moore.

Jeff Malachowski can be reached at 508-490-7466 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JmalachowskiMW.