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Elaine Huskey: Fly fishing, veterans support and friendship

Elaine Huskey: Fly fishing, veterans support and friendship
Elaine Huskey

Pristine waters tumbling down from the mountains course through the rivers of Colorado, creating peaceful settings for fly fishing. Elaine Huskey soaks in the good vibes as she pulls in a rainbow trout.

She feels blessed to live among the aspens and cottonwoods of a state she has called home since she was 2 years old.

“Nineteen years ago, I went fly fishing with a friend. I was sitting on the bank and thought, ‘I can do this too.’ Soon, I enrolled in a two-day class. I’ve been hooked ever since,” said Huskey, a health studies technician at the ORAU office in Arvada. She decorates her office with flies, fly reels and pictures of fishing in spectacular landscapes across the West.

“I tie my own flies and build my own fishing rods,” she said.

Her work schedule allows her to get away on weekends, so she has become a fly fishing guide and fishes all over Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, taking 12 to 14 trips a year and competing in tournaments.

Huskey serves as a mentor in Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a national organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans. They can enroll through the project website and connect with a local chapter to find out about fly fishing.

Huskey’s Denver chapter holds monthly meetings in which disabled veterans build fly rods and tie flies while they learn the basics of fly fishing. The large chapter sponsors day-long and weekend outings to local and regional rivers and lakes under the direction of Project Healing Waters volunteer fly fishers and guides.

“I do something with Project Healing Waters about once a week,” said Huskey, explaining that, for her, fly fishing is a year-round sport. “I fish in the wintertime, too. It’s just a little tougher, especially when the snow and ice come in and freeze things over.”

Veterans navigating the waters

“Through Project Healing Waters, I have fished with about 50 men and women. Many have never been next to a river. For those, you have to start from the very beginning,” she said.

Some of the veterans have physical disabilities that can make moving around the water or riverbank challenging. They are required to wear a personal floatation device while fishing. Mentors must be certified in First Aid.

“You have to ask them, especially the veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or major disabilities, ‘What can I do to help you? What do I need to know? Do you mind me grabbing your arm?’ Usually they will tell you how to help them get steady in the water,” she said. “Someone with PTSD can be very nervous and upset—visibly shaking—when they move into the water. After a few minutes, they become calm. The fresh air, the quiet, the camaraderie—it’s amazing to them. They let go of worries. They don’t have a care in the world. Soon they feel like they can do it. And, they catch a fish. They get so excited!” she said.

A chance to build friendships

Huskey described a recent four-day Project Healing Waters trip near Buena Vista, Colorado, in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, a region with multiple 14,000-foot peaks. Eight veterans and six volunteer mentors and guides fished the river and gathered for meals and conversation at a spacious log home.

“The veterans sat around and talked about what they’ve done and experienced in military service. They think it’s ‘normal’ work. We think it’s incredible! They don’t understand what an honor it is for us to be with them,” said Huskey. “You talk about everything. You get to know people pretty good when you spend weekends with them and see them at meetings.”

Some of the veterans who have participated in the learning program have become mentors themselves. “Fly fishing has put them in a place where they feel like they can help others,” said Huskey. She names several reasons for her involvement. “My grandfather was a World War II tail gunner on fighter planes, and my dad served in the U.S. Army in Korea. I am doing this in honor of them,” she said.

“I’m helping somebody do something I love. And it helps them begin to love it, too. It’s amazing the talent hidden inside people,” said Huskey. “I’m making incredible friends.”