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Wounded warriors go fishing for recovery

  • Story Highlights
  • Retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson helps wounded servicemembers through fly-fishing
  • Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing aids the physical, emotional healing processes
  • Since 2005, Nicholson's program has grown to more than 50 locations nationwide
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open at CNN.com/Heroes
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MADISON COUNTY, Virginia (CNN) -- Amidst the tranquility of a fishing trip at the Rose River Farm in Madison County, a wounded warrior says he almost feels "semi-normal again."

Retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson's Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing helps rehabilitate wounded servicemembers.

Retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson's Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing helps rehabilitate wounded servicemembers.

The amputee is one of about 1,000 servicemen and veterans who have reaped the benefits of the therapeutic art of fly-fishing, with the help of retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson.

"The demons of war, you just don't set them aside," says Nicholson, 67. "But once you get out on the river, the serenity is incredibly healing."

While recovering from cancer surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2004, Nicholson witnessed wounded and disabled men and women -- many of them amputees -- struggling with their injuries.

"Other than being in Vietnam and seeing people in the process of getting hurt, I never really had a full appreciation for the recovery part and what happened after they came home. My recovery was nothing compared to what they were facing. It planted the seed that maybe there's something I could do," Nicholson says.

The solution was obvious to Nicholson, who says being an outdoorsman is in his blood: Get them out of the hospital and into nature.

Through free classes and outings, Nicholson's organization, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, helps rehabilitate injured and disabled servicemembers and veterans.

"We would run these classes that would better prepare them to be fishermen when the weather got nice and we could move outside, start casting lessons and go fishing," he says.

Nicholson and ty flying instructor John Colburn saw that the discipline of tying flies, which requires patience and training, benefited veterans recovering from injuries. And it helped them relax.

"You have a guy who lost a leg and we get him out there wading in a stream -- he gets a boost. Or a guy who lost an arm, we start him casting. He has a chance to use his new arm and actually do something that's enjoyable," says Nicholson. Do you know someone who should be a CNN Hero? Nominations are open at CNN.com/Heroes

"Ed [is] showing us that if you have the will, they will find a way," says Army Staff Sgt. Brian Mancini, who lost his right eye after being hit by an explosive device in Iraq in July 2007. "It shows you that life's not over, it's only beginning." Video Watch Mancini describe how Nicholson's program helped his healing process »

One soldier with a brain injury says tying flies, building fly rods and casting have helped him with his motor skills. Others on the catch-and-release outing describe feeling normal for the first time in a long time. Video Watch wounded servicemen discuss the role of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing in their recovery »

"Between the pain, the medication, the realization that their life has been changed, they're doing something that gives them a great deal of pleasure and that they can look forward to," Nicholson says. Video Watch Nicholson as he helps wounded soldiers through fly-fishing »

First Lt. Ferris Butler, an active participant in Project Healing Waters, agrees.

"If you compound losing body parts with losing friends, just getting in the water is a release," he says, adding that fishing gave him enhanced dexterity because it helped him learn to walk on prosthetics in the water.

Since 2005, Nicholson's program has grown to more than 50 locations nationwide with "more to come," he says. With support from The Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited, the group is establishing long-term relationships with hospital and military staff, participants and volunteers. Participants across the country can attend outings during the spring, summer and fall.

An indoor component focuses on classroom activities.

Nicholson, who rises early and spends the better part of his day running operations for his organization, once thought he'd spend his golden years enjoying his favorite pastimes: fishing and hunting. But he says he welcomes the direction his life has taken.

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"I'm doing something that gives me as much satisfaction and gratification of anything that I've really done. I loved serving my country. I was proud to serve for 30 years. But I'm incredibly satisfied with what I'm doing now."

Want to get involved? Check out Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing and see how to help.

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