David Folkerts knows the challenges faced by members of the military who are still recovering from wounds received while in the service. As a Combat Engineer Officer in the U.S. Army, Folkerts was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol in Iraq in 2005. His recovery began at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where he was introduced to Project Healing Waters.
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to use the sport of fly-fishing and associated activities as a means of physical and emotional recovery for disabled veterans and wounded, injured and ill military service members. Fly-fishing uses an artificial fly, cast by a fly rod, reel, and a specialized, weighted line that requires unique and skilled casting.
On a pleasant April afternoon Folkerts, Chief Operations Officer for Project Healing Waters, visited with members of a recently formed chapter of the organization. The chapter was put together by employees at CSL Behring, a global biotherapeutics leader with an operational headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
“It’s really all about helping disabled veterans and wounded, injured and ill military service members,” said Steven Yannelli, CSL Behring Program Lead for the chapter. Yannelli is a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard who served as the commanding officer of a Signal Corps unit within the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
“Our program is all about lending a helping hand to disabled veterans and getting them out on the water and getting them to experience the beauty that is Mother Nature,” Yannelli said.
Yannelli, a Director within the Information & Technology team at CSL Behring, and other leaders at the biotherapeutics company, formed the chapter of Project Healing Waters in 2020, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic the group got off to a slow start. But throughout the pandemic they remained focused on getting the program off the ground, because they believed in their mission.
“Along with fishing outings, we hold fly-tying sessions where participants learn how to tie artificial flies,” said Richard Wolf, Executive Sponsor of the program for CSL Behring and a U.S. Army Veteran. “CSL Behring employees help to organize these events and the people who participate really enjoy it, because they believe in bringing the Project Healing Waters program to life,” Wolf said.
“Trout Don’t Live in Ugly Places”
Folkerts said one of the most popular game for fly-fishers are trout. “As the saying goes, trout don’t live in ugly places,” Folkerts said. “It’s pretty hard to have a bad day when you go out in the water and just enjoy all the sounds of nature,” he said.
Those calming waters provide therapeutic benefits to disabled veterans, Folkerts believes. “A lot of what veterans did during their military service, especially when you’re deployed overseas, it can be a lot of craziness and a lot of stress, which leads to post-traumatic stress,” he said. “And when you get to come out in nature and fly-fish, it really brings a calming and a peace.”
At Walter Reed, Folkerts was among the first to participate in the program, which started at the medical center. He had never fly-fished in his life before that.
“I thought it would be too hard. My left hand was partially paralyzed at the time. I honestly didn’t want to do it,” Folkerts said, recalling his initial impressions of the sport. But the volunteers at Project Healing Waters didn’t give up on Folkerts and eventually convinced him to get in the water. On his first fishing trip, he hooked a brook trout. “I remember pulling that trout out of the water and seeing how beautiful it was, and I just fell in love with fly-fishing,” he said.
From Program Participant to Project Healing Waters COO
Folkerts also loved fly-fishing with fellow combat wounded or disabled service members. “It did a lot for me and my recovery,” he said.
It did so much for him that when he medically retired from the military in 2008, he continued volunteering with the organization. Several months later, he was hired as a staff member with Project Healing Waters. He was only the second person hired by the program. He served in several positions with the organization, including Operations Manager and National Programs Officer, before being named Chief Operations Officer.
“I’ve now been with the organization for 14 years, and it’s been great to see it grow to 223 programs across the nation, working with thousands of disabled veterans,” Folkerts said.
To learn more about Project Healing Waters, log onto their website, www.projecthealingwaters.org.