ROANOKE, Va. – Many of the men and women who honorably serve our country face a new crisis when they return from combat overseas.
A Southwest Virginia organization is helping them through their scars by using the water to heal.
Fly fishing reeled James Beheler in years ago.
“It’s my passion in life. I love it,” Beheler said. “Every fish I catch, it’s like the first one I ever caught. It never gets old.”
It’s much more than a sport, for the Franklin County man, it’s about survival.
“It means the world to me. It saved my life. It literally saved my life,” Beheler said.
Beheler served in the Navy for nearly 7 years, in Afghanistan for more than a year. He was in it for the long-haul but was wounded and medically retired in 2014.
“I didn’t have a purpose. I felt useless,” Beheler said.
He found that some scars take much longer to heal than others.
“I was getting ready to step over the edge and end it, just be done with it,” Beheler said.
It was on that edge that the tides turned with an out-of-the-blue phone call from his daughter, leading him to check himself into the VA. That saved Beheler in the moment, but what he found in the hospital would save him long-term.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for that phone call and if it weren’t for meeting Bob Crawshaw,” Beheler said.
“James saved his own life. I just happened to be there to facilitate,” said Bob Crawshaw, a guide for Project Healing Waters.
Crawshaw is a Navy veteran himself with 34 years of service. Since then, he’s dedicated his life to a different kind of service through Project Healing Waters. The non-profit is focused on helping disabled veterans heal through fly fishing.
“A person that lost their dominant arm, how do you teach them how to cast? How do you teach a blind vet to cast?” Crawshaw said.
The Roanoke-New River Valley chapter is Virginia’s largest with 155 members.
Volunteering as a fishing guide for 14 years, Crawshaw has seen just how healing the waters really are.
“I get an email, ‘You don’t remember me but years ago you saved my life and I’ll be always in your debt,’” Crawshaw said.
Beheler is just one of those lives changed.
Beyond the challenge and the calm, it’s about the bond.
“We’re all in this together,” Beheler said.
“They start to tell their stories and they feel better,” Crawshaw said.
That powerful progress has largely been put on hold because of the pandemic. The coronavirus forced Project Healing Waters to stop all in-person events, going on more than a year now.
“We do zoom fly tying. Well that’s not why we tie flies. We tie flies to get together,” Crawshaw said.
COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on mental health, especially for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, calls to the VA’s main crisis line were up nearly 15% last year. This only amplified a problem that was startling long before the coronavirus.
The VA says more than 6,300 veterans die by suicide every year. That’s more than 17 a day.
Combining numbers for active-duty service men and women and members of the National Guard and Reserve gets it closer to the haunting “22 a day” that’s become a rallying cry for those fighting to help people suffering from PTSD.
Beheler is one of those, but he has found his peace at the end of a line. Now it’s his mission to bring other veterans in the dark like he was to the light.
“When I’m out here, this is the closest I am to God,” Beheler said. “Hopefully we can take that 22 a day and dwindle it down one cast at a time.”
Project Healing Waters is in desperate need of volunteers, donations, veterans and water. To learn more about the organization or how you can help, click here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.