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Avid Fly Fisherman Shares The Sport's Peace Of Mind With Veterans

October 15,2017 14:10

Standing in a river trying to catch an elusive trout with bait he makes himself is a special place for Jim Iannone, physically but also emotionally. He summarizes the tranquility and accomplishment that come with fly fishing in a few words: "There's ...


Standing in a river trying to catch an elusive trout with bait he makes himself is a special place for Jim Iannone, physically but also emotionally.
He summarizes the tranquility and accomplishment that come with fly fishing in a few words: "There's nothing like it."
But he also wanted to share that peace of mind with others, and a small ad he saw in the newsletter of a fishing organization he belongs to gave him an idea.
That ad promoted a fly fishing program for disabled veterans called Project Healing Waters, which was looking for people to start local chapters. Iannone had an idea where such a program could work — the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' medical center in Newington.
"I had been coming to the VA hospital myself and I could see the need," said Iannone, who was in the Marine Corps from 1963 to 1966. "So when I read the ad I said, 'Let's step up and see what I can do.'"
With that in mind, he pitched the idea of a fly fishing club to medical center officials.
Joe Canzanella, director of volunteer services at the hospital, said he was skeptical when Iannone approached him, and at first just six people showed up when the program started in 2012. Five years later the program has reached a total of 90 people with a core of 20 to 25 who attend the group's monthly meetings at the medical center.
"Fishing takes my mind off the stress and darkness at home, of looking out the window and wondering what you are going to do," said Ron Buxton of Hartford, a disabled Army veteran. "It gives you peace of mind, it helps you relax and get in a good state of mind."
Buxton saw a notice about the fly fishing club in a hospital newsletter and was also steered to it by the facility's recreation director. He said he suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing a close friend die in a motorcycle accident.
"And I have a bad left knee. It's a melting pot," Buxton said.
Project Healing Waters was started in 2005 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., by a retired army officer who was an avid fly fisherman and thought the activity could help many of the disabled veterans he saw there. Iannone said the program now has more than 200 local chapters at facilities serving veterans, although the one in Newington is the only one in Connecticut. Iannone said he is working to bring the program to the VA health center in West Haven too.

Ken Byron / Hartford Courant
Jim Iannone, who started a chapter of Project Healing Waters at the VA Medical Center in Newington, is one of the Hartford Courant's Hometown Heroes.
Jim Iannone, who started a chapter of Project Healing Waters at the VA Medical Center in Newington, is one of the Hartford Courant's Hometown Heroes. (Ken Byron / Hartford Courant)

Iannone, of West Hartford, said he was motivated to help people in need and his background as a life-long fisherman was the tool he could use.
"I want to be able to get in their mind when they have a dark moment and get their mind off of their anguish," he said.
Fly fishing uses special bait, often hand-made, that resembles a fly. Making the bait oneself requires time, creativity in using material and manual dexterity. And the single-minded focus needed to make the bait lets people push aside issues in the rest of their life that are a constant source of worry, Iannnone said.
Then there is the fishing part, which requires experience and a special set of skills. But it also gets you outside and on a river, which provides its own peace of mind, Iannone said. He said the club meets monthly at the hospital for classes on making the bait and the goal is to get veterans out on a river or pond for fishing three or four times a year.
Participants in the fly fishing club must be referred to it by clinicians working with them at the medical center. Iannone said issues afflicting veterans in the group include post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and physical disabilities like missing limbs. One participant is blind.
The largest group in the club is people who are around 60, including Vietnam veterans. "It's not that young of a crowd, which is another outreach we have to do," Iannone said.
Helping Iannone are volunteers he recruited from fishermen he knows through Trout Unlimited, a national fishing organization that has eight chapters in Connecticut. Iannone said those volunteers work with the veterans on making the bait and coach them on casting and other skills when they go fishing.
"I did not think it would take, but I also don't know anything about fishing or the interest in it among veterans," Canzanella said. "But this has become a strong program. I think it's one of our better ones. You don't have to be big and strong to fly fish, you just have to have a mind to do it."

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