TOGUS — Linwood Brayall and his grandson, Jordan Meunier, have spent a lot time casting for fish in the lakes and streams around Kennebec County, but it could be that some of their best times will come as they prepare for their next big trip.
Brayall, a Vietnam War-era veteran, and Meunier, a 14-year-old Gardiner boy, will spend the next several weeks building a fly rod as part of Project Healing Water’s program at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus.
“How fast it gets built depends on how many mistakes we make,” Brayall said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s something he and I can do together.”
Project Healing Waters, a national organization that uses fly fishing and accompanying activities to rehabilitate injured veterans physically and emotionally, has had a chapter at Togus since 2007. Indeed, Togus was the first hospital in the veterans system to offer the program, said Dave Hedrick, director of the Kennebec Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, which provides volunteer instructors. Hedrick, a Vietnam War veteran, said about two-thirds of the volunteers are veterans, and several of them were wounded. Most of the volunteers have been with the program since the beginning.
“I haven’t lost many volunteers,” Hedrick said. “We get as much out of it as the veterans do.”
The fact that the volunteers have military experience, and often combat experience, helps them connect with the veterans.
“They tell me stuff they haven’t told their wives,” Hedrick said. “Once they lance that boil, it gets easier and easier.”
The program, open to any veteran with any disability rating, meets the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at Togus. Sessions include instruction on how to fly fish, including the science of fish and their habitat, as well as fly tying and fly rod building.
“Some of them drive an hour and a half to get here,” Hedrick said.
The group takes four trips per year, goinbg to Grand Lake Stream, Eustis, Jackman and Greenville. Thanks primarily to donations from national suppliers as well as Maine guide services and camps, all of the programs are offered to the veterans at no cost.
“It’s like a Fourth of July parade for three days in Greenville,” Hedrick said. “It’s all free.”
Most of the dozen or so veterans working on their fly rods Wednesday have built at least one other rod through Project Healing Waters, but Herb Macomber, of Waterville, was working on his first rod after taking part in the program for more than a year. Macomber, who was on active duty during the Vietnam War, went fly fishing for the first time in his life last year. Unlike fishing with a rod and reel, fly fishing requires proper technique to try to present the fly to the fish in the most realistic manner possible, Macomber said.
“You’re continually involved with it,” he said. “You doing something the whole time. To me, it feels like more an art than a hobby.”
Dwaine LaChance, also a Vietnam-era veteran, was about four weeks into building his first fly rod. He got involved with the program a few months ago when he happened to walk by a class after an appointment at Togus.
“They invited me in,” LaChance said.
LaChance said he likes to fish and is anxious to put what he’s learned about fly fishing to use, but that’s not all that kept him coming back for the class.
“Half of it’s just being with the other vets,” LaChance said.
Brayall has been with Project Healing Waters for about two years and has already built a rod. The one he and Meunier are working on now will belong to the boy.
“It keeps him out of trouble,” Brayall said.
Meunier is anxious to try out the new rod with his grandfather.
“I like to catch fish,” Meunier said. “It’s peaceful.”
Don Taylor has volunteered with the program since it came to Togus. A longtime teacher in fly rod construction, Taylor is the lead instructor in the class. Several of the rods built by the veterans under Taylor’s instruction have won top spots in Project Healing Waters national competitions. Taylor, who was a combat engineer in the Vietnam War, said he has seen the emotional and physical benefits of the program. He recalled one veteran who was hesitant to even build a rod.
“I’ve taken him through two graphite rods, and now he’s building a bamboo rod from scratch,” Taylor said.
The program has helped the veterans connect and share experiences.
“They get into a group,” Taylor said. “Before, they wouldn’t. I’ve made a lot of friends.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected]