Fly-fishing with other veterans “creates another community of veterans, along with volunteers who are non-veterans, and helps with recovery from a lot of issues veterans might be facing,” says Chris Boutin.
He did several tours with the Marines and Army National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now is a Saint Michael’s College psychology student who keeps active in veteran affairs on campus and beyond. The 31-year-old married father of twins from Milton says he prefers concrete actions to idle talk, so he has been working this semester with Joshua Gerasimof of the local Veterans Affairs office and Ken O’Connell, the new St. Mike’s Coordinator of Veteran Services, to get others involved in and benefiting from his new fishing passion.
The result: Green Mountain Project Healing Water Fly Fishing, in cooperation with the Saint Michael’s College chapter of the Student Veterans of America Club, will be presenting fly-tying sessions on campus, starting Nov. 5 from 9 a.m. to noon, in the Tarrant Recreation Center's Hall of Fame Room.
These sessions will run through winter (end of March), every first and third Saturday of the month. Veterans on the Saint Michael’s campus and from the wider community are invited to come join fly-tying instruction for free with other wounded veterans and active-duty personnel.
Instruction will be provided by avid fly-fishermen who volunteer their services, some students from the campus fly-fishing club. Veterans from campus and the wider community are invited to experience a new craft “that will help get you through the cold Vermont winter months and be among fellow military comrades,” said Gerasimof.
Chris Boutin explains what fly-tying and fishing does for him and others who share similar military experiences: “Sometimes we get stuck in finding friendships only with other veterans, but this has allowed me to find friends who are nonveterans,” he says. Saint Michael’s Political Science Professor Bill Grover is adviser of the campus fly-fishing club, notes Boutin, “and he has a lot of skill and experience, so we’ll work together in making this possible. They’ll be the official campus club that we need to sponsor an on-campus event like we’re doing.”
The lead instructor will be Brother Frank Hagerty of the resident Saint Michael’s Edmundite community, another longtime fly-fishing enthusiast.
Boutin said he did not have a long personal background in fly-fishing, “but I had met Josh who does it as our program leader, and I figured it would be beneficial – and now that I’ve tried it, I love it.” Just this July, after Gerasimof urged him to apply for a special Project Healing Waters opportunity, Boutin was granted a trip to Kodiak, Alaska, hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard. He headed up there along with five other veterans from around the country who were chosen among many applications nationwide.
“I met some of their rescue swimmers and others and had a great time working with them and just talking about life in general. I just fell in love with it even more,” Boutin said. “And Josh is really excited to be working with St. Mike’s because everyone genuinely cares here. In the past, I’ve met people who say they care but have ulterior motives -- but this program and activities here this summer that had veterans gardening alongside students, they feel genuine.”
Gerasimof says the biggest benefit of the program in his view is for veterans who may feel isolated and not part of a community. “It gives them safe place to explore community and build that sense of being a part of one,” said Gerasimof. “I think community engagement is one of the biggest transition problems when veterans are returning to civilian live, and this is a safe, non-threatening environment that might make it easier for them then to engage in other community events, possibly find that brotherhood they had in the military that might feel lost, and have that connection again.” Fly-fishing is ideal for this purpose, he says, since “most fly-fisher men and women will say there’s a strong sense of community among fly-fishers.”
“And then to connect with St. Mike’s -- as we already did through our summer gardening program with vets this year --is great for students who work alongside us as a way to recognize the sacrifice of their peers, or just to learn what’s out there in the community,” Gerasimof says. “It’s a give and take for both the veterans and students -- just another type of tool or key that might unlock a veteran who maybe wasn’t interested in gardening when we offered that this summer, but likes to fish. When it all comes down to it, it’s not about the gardening or fly-fishing – it’s getting them involved. Because if the veterans enjoy being with others in this setting, maybe they will then try the next step to become more engaged.”
Instructor Brother Frank Hagerty of the Saint Michael’s-based Edmundite religious community says he started fly-fishing in the 1980s when a co-worker in the Fannie Allen Hospital emergency room (where Hagerty was an ER nurse and supervisor) got him interested. “Next thing I knew, I took a fly-tying class, then a rod-building class,” recalls Hagerty. Last May, he saw an article in the local paper about Project Healing Waters and contacted a friend from another fishing group whose name was in the story to ask if they needed any help teaching veterans.
They did, she told him, and one thing led to another, with Hagerty connecting earlier this fall with Boutin and McConnell, and from there, with Gerasimof. Hagerty says in recent months he has taught fly-tying to half a dozen veterans at a Waterbury event. Also in recent months, he says, the late Fr. Mike Cronogue of the Edmundites had put him in touch with Saint Michael’s student Matt Ayers ’17, president of the campus fly-fishing club, so Hagerty has been teaching students fly-tying too, making him a logical instructor to connect the groups. He helped arrange for the campus fishing group to be event sponsors for this year’s coming Saturday gatherings, and helped inventory and secure the proper supplies as well.
“Fly-tying can be a meditative thing,” Hagerty says, “and it helps with focus and finding motor coordination for some of these guys with disabilities, so I really see the benefit. And besides, it’s fun! In the spring, we’ll get them out fishing.”
Direct any questions to Joshua Gerasimof of the local Veterans Affairs office at 802-309-2350. Website: www.projecthealingwaters.org