United States Army Captain Michael Luckett, Retired smiled with eager anticipation. Holding a fly fishing rod for the first time he was thrilled by the prospects casting a line on a pristine Colorado trout stream.
“I’ve been waiting to do some fly fishing for a very long time,” he said. “I’ve seen it and I don’t know how people actually catch fish like that. It just really interests me.”
Though his eyes were covered by dark sunglasses and shaded beneath the brim of a truckers caps neither could hide his broad grin which seemed to shine with a light all its own. His entire being vibrated with energy and excitement he could barely contain. It was as if at any moment Luckett might literally leap to his feet and break into a full sprint toward his greatest ambitions. But confined to a wheelchair he merely sat smiling as he tested the action of his new fly rod. Adapted for his special needs the cork handle was strapped securely with velcro to his hand paralyzed like his legs as the result of a severe spinal cord injury.
On this beautiful day in late Summer Luckett was among several veteran soldiers who shared his enthusiasm. Despite the loss of limbs, traumatic brain injury or combat related stress disorders these brave men aimed to make the most of the shattered lives they had dedicated to the service of their country.
“It’ll be great going out into the river again,” Luckett said. “I might actually put my feet in the water and get my shoes wet today.”
The guests of the Lincoln Hills Fly Fishing Club in Black Hawk, Colorado these wounded warriors received a much-needed experience in the natural world. With the help of professional and volunteer guides Luckett and his comrades spent the day on South Boulder Creek learning the arts of hook and reel in a program called Anglers of Honor. Immersed in this peaceful setting fully engaged in this activity that requires so concentration and skill the organizers aim to smooth the journey of these servicemen along the road of recovery.
“The primary benefit is just what every trout fisherman wants,” said Rob Altenbernd Military Support Specialist at Rocky Mountain Human Services. “You can just be there, be mindful, be in moment, focusing on one thing and let all your worries and troubles go away.”
As mental health professional Altenbernd works with more than 60 clients through a program called Operation TBI Freedom. Helping to manage the transition of returning soldiers he deals with men whose injuries have left them psychologically ill-equipped to handle the common stresses of civilian life. Altenbernd said these outings into nature in the company of fellow soldiers profoundly helps the healing process.
“What I like about it is we talk. And this might be the first time these guys have really talked in a while. And that’s how they really bond,” he said. “When they get back I guarantee you they’re going to be making arrangements to go out and fish by themselves as a group because they’ve made friends today.”
Anglers of Honor at Lincoln Hills provides a safe and supportive environment where these veterans can learn basic fly fishing skills. Wading through a well-stocked stream accompanied by an experienced guide everyone is all but guaranteed to land an impressive rainbow or brown trout. Though every catch is released each participant will carry with them an experience that will last a lifetime and many will return to their families with a much brighter outlook on their prospects for the future.
“We get feedback from spouses and from family members saying ‘thank you’,” Altenbernd said. “I got my husband back.”
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