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"I Was Hooked"

Disabled Veterans Find Healing & Community through Fly Fishing at Shenandoah National Park
by Annie Brackemyre Summer 2022
A person fly fishes along a rocky stream
Airforce Veteran John Knox fishes with Project Healing Waters at Shenandoah National Park
NPF Photo / Rich Woods

The military veterans turned novice fishermen all speak the same language—an unnamed string of words, military jargon, and understanding nods that build the veteran vernacular.

Despite different backgrounds, different hometowns, and different abilities, their experiences as Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Navy veterans bring them together with a shared understanding of the often-tumultuous transition to civilian life.

Part of this shared language is the understanding of the healing process. Brian Donegan, Tony Escalona, Jon Knox, and Stuart Mayo were all wounded in battle and their civilian assimilation includes new mental, emotional, and physical adaptations. And they've found that 300+ acres of forests, mountains, and river throughout Shenandoah National Park are a naturally healing space.

Breaking Barriers

Knox and his guide work together to prepare their line for fishing.
John Knox and his guide work together to prepare their line for fishing. NPF Photo / Rich Woods
Escalona shows off a fish he caught.
Tony Escalona shows off a fish he caught. NPF Photo / Rich Woods


While nature can be a naturally healing place, access isn’t straightforward for the disabled veterans. That’s why Jessica Kusky, Volunteer and Youth Program Manager for Shenandoah National Park, and Bill Campbell, Regional Coordinator of the Virginia region for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, applied for a National Park Foundation ParkVentures grant with the goal of expanding veteran services in the park.

A veteran himself, Campbell served in the Vietnam War and also shares the language of fishermen. It’s with that sense of duty and heart that Campbell and Kusky put their heads together to launch the fly-fishing program in Shenandoah National Park.

Project Healing Water participant fly fishing
You just sit by the water, you just hear that water. You just watch nature, it's just, it's just healing by itself. Whether you catch a fish or not, it is just healing.
Tony Escalona, Army Veteran

“Shenandoah National Park, and the mission behind the national parks, they are healing. They are respites. They are places for people to disconnect and reconnect in a whole new way to nature,” said Kusky. “One of the great opportunities about Project Healing Waters and the ParkVentures grant is that it opens up special places for veterans to come and have these wonderful experiences. And that’s what all national parks should be, a place for people to come, feel welcome, and feel invited to be here.”

The National Park Foundation ParkVentures program provides grants with a focus on communities that have been historically excluded from parks and may not feel a sense of belonging in the outdoors. With a goal of making national parks accessible to all, NPF's ParkVentures program addresses obstacles that hinder communities from having full and enduring connections to parks.

Project Healing Waters participant fly fishing
The act of tying flies is almost like a form of meditation in a way. It requires a lot of concentration, you kind of zone out things. So it's very much the same kind of benefit there." Tony Escalona: "You just sit by the water, you just hear that water. You just watch nature, it's just, it's just healing by itself. Whether you catch a fish or not, it is just healing.
Brian Donegan, Coast Guard Veteran

The veterans in this group are recovering from traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, and many of the veteran fishermen talked about their anxiety in crowds and difficulty leaving their houses. By partnering, NPF, Shenandoah National Park, and Project Healing Waters are helping to create safe and accessible spaces in national parks for the veterans to gradually become reacquainted with simple acts of normalcy like group events.

The NPF grant covered the cost of two multi-day trout fishing excursions, multiple one-day fishing excursions, and two public outreach events in the park, as well as the lodging, food, transportation, and equipment for the veterans. By covering these costs, ParkVentures helps remove the barriers that are often overlooked – like transportation to and from the river.

In the case of many disabled veterans, park trails are often too steep or too narrow to traverse alone and fishing sites are too remote to easily access. Through the partnership, the park opens fire roads so that the veterans can drive directly to the riverbank, bypassing hikes that can be miles long. Project Healing Waters also pairs each veteran with a guide, an expert fly fisherman, who often carries gear, nets the fish, and provides any other assistance.

“We’ve gone to some incredibly beautiful places the last couple of days,” said Escalona, a 31-year Army veteran. He nods to what he calls the hardware in his fellow fly-fisherman—the pins, plates, and screws left from surgeries. “We have to take it a little slower. Being able to drive to get here helps us get to fish and fish longer.”

“One of the great opportunities about Project Healing Waters and the ParkVentures grant is that it opens up special places for veterans to come and have these wonderful experiences. And that’s what all national parks should be, a place for people to come, feel welcome, and feel invited to be here.”
Jessica Kusky, Volunteer and Youth Program Manager, Shenandoah National Park

Pairing Parks with the “Quiet Sport”

Close up of John Knox holding a fly fishing rod
John Knox fly fishing with Project Healing Waters at Shenandoah National Park NPF Photo / Rich Woods
John Knox focuses on fly fishing
John Knox fly fishing with Project Healing Waters at Shenandoah National Park NPF Photo / Rich Woods

John Knox, an Airforce Veteran, has childhood memories of traveling to national parks out west but says the trauma from his military service held him back from exploring or trying out new group activities until he learned about Project Healing Waters.

While in Shenandoah National Park, Knox caught his first brook trout, what fishermen affectionally call “brookies.” These smaller stature trout wear yellow spots over an olive-green back. And they were the catch of the day when Knox and his guide were on the river.

Project Healing Waters participant fly fishing
If you've got, you know, a lot of things going on in your life and a lot of things going on in your head, being about to focus on, on being outdoors and things like that, it can really, you know, bring you out of that.
John Knox, Airforce Veteran

For a sport that requires ultimate patience and concentration, silence and deliberation, the excitement is also clear. “I get goosebumps, just seeing the trout come up,” Knox says.

Fly fishing requires such a level of connection with the water and the fish — inspecting where the mayflies that the fish might be feeding on are, scrutinizing the current, and determining how rocks and rock jumbles change the turbulence of the current and affect the trout’s trajectory. It’s a calculated pastime, often called a quiet sport, that requires you to fully immerse yourself in the experience.

“Getting back out, I started really realizing the therapeutic aspect of getting out hiking, getting back in nature, and getting in touch with that aspect of things. I had high anxiety at first,” Knox said. “But I was hooked.”

Thanks To Our Partners

Generous funding from ParkVentures founding partner Nature Valley supports Project Healing Waters programming at Shenandoah National Park. The National Park Foundation is investing more than $1.1 million in ParkVentures grants in fiscal year 2022, including support from Outdoor Exploration initiative premier partner Subaru of America and supporting partners Niantic and Sun Outdoors. Additional support is provided by Apple, American Airlines, EVOLVE Plant-Based Protein, Method Products, Kohl’s, and Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold.

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A row of fishing rods lean against the stone facade of a building
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