TOWNSHIP C — Waist-deep in the Rapid River with a fly rod in his hand, Stan Munson feels whole.

It matters little that the veteran can’t see the trout he might catch or the sunset in this remote place southwest of Rangeley. He can feel the torrent of cold water spilling from the nearby dam. He can smell the crisp air. He can luxuriate in the sounds of friendly voices.

“I’ve been outdoorsy all my life, ” said Munson, who lives in Belfast. “But this is more than fishing.”

It was meant to be.

Munson’s fishing excursion was organized by the VA Hospital at Togus and a national nonprofit group called “Project: Healing Waters.”

The aim: to bring some peace to veterans with disabilities.

“I’ve seen it work,” said Teri Olsen, a recreational therapist at Togus who organized the collaboration with Healing Waters. “The guys come quiet and reserved. By the time they leave, they’re laughing and hugging and weeping.”

“Best of all, it makes lifelong changes,” Olsen said. “I know many of the men and women. A year later, they are different people.”

The collaboration has lasted three years, since the VA worker first heard of Healing Waters at a national conference. When she came home, she began putting together a coalition to help veterans. Besides Healing Waters, she brought in the Maine Warden Service and Trout Unlimited. She convinced nurses from the VA to lend a hand. She also met with Aldro French, a Vietnam veteran and Maine guide who owns Rapid River Fly Fishing.

French donated the use of his lodges at the height of the tourist season to help 12 veterans.

“I thought, ‘My God, I found a way to give,'” French said.

On Tuesday, as he marked the third time in three years he has opened his business, French beamed. Men and women rocked in porch chairs as they relaxed from a lunch of burgers and beans. Others began pulling on waders and attaching flies to their lines.

“They were up at 4 in the morning and fishing by 5,” French said.”They’re going back.”

Some of the guys said they were finding peace in this rustic complex, more than a dozen miles from the nearest paved road.

“It takes your mind away from the pressures,” said Dave Walker, an Iraq veteran from Levant.

Too much of his time is consumed with battling the effects of his wounds from three roadside bomb explosions. The last, which happened in August 2009, injured his brain. It left him with memory and speech problems that get worse when he’s excited or upset.

Here, beside the river, his speech was clear and confident.

“I’m finding peace and relaxation,” he said.

A few minutes later, Walker made his way along a catwalk attached to the river’s Middle Dam. A volunteer from Trout Unlimited helped him find a spot just below the spillway.

In the river about 20 feet away, Munson steadied himself against a boulder. A volunteer lent a hand on his other side.

Too many people tell the ex-soldier he can’t do things, because a 1980 car crash stole his sight. Not here, he said. No one told him what he heard so many times in society: “You can’t do that.”

Instead, the VA workers and volunteers worked at coming up with solutions.

“If I want to do something, they say, ‘We just have to figure out how,'” said Munson, 51.

He is already looking forward to returning next year and meeting new people.

“Come and feel whole,” he said.

[email protected]

Disabled veteran Shawn McDonald, left, of Rome, NY, chats with volunteer John Engelbert of Lisbon Falls as they head to Lower Dam on the Rapid River to try their luck for trout and salmon on Tuesday. Joe Taylor, a disabled veteran from Springvale walks up ahead.

Disabled veteran Stan Munson, right, of Belfast chats with volunteer John Wood of Kennebunkport during lunch at the Friends of the Forest Lodge. Munson, who is blind, is one of 12 veterans who are spending the week fly-fishing on the Rapid River in northern Oxford County.

A note for fishermen was placed below Middle Dam on the Rapid River, a good fishing spot where a handful of disabled veterans tried their luck on Tuesday.

Willie Grenier of Waterville unhooks a small trout for disabled veteran Dave Walker of Levant while fishing below Middle Dam on the Rapid River on Tuesday. Grenier is a member of the Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited and is a volunteer guide for “Project Healing Waters.”

Disabled veteran Dave Walker of Levant moves to a different spot in search of trout and salmon on the Rapid River below Lower Richardson Lake on Tuesday. “Getting out like this is just wonderful,” said the Iraq war veteran who suffers from a brain injury. Walker’s job in Iraq required him to go out looking for roadside bombs. “A lot of times the bombs would find us before we found them,” said Walker.

A volunteer guide lands a trout for a disabled vet on the Rapid River during “Project Healing Waters.”

Dave Walker looks over the flies that he tied himself. “It’s good therapy for my brain,” said Walker about hand tying trout and salmon flies. Walker has a brain injury from a roadside bomb that he encountered while serving in Iraq. One of Walker’s flies is named “Kelly” after his wife.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.