Project Healing Waters helps heroes
Paul Marek, left, 74, of Viera works with his son Russell, 47, also of Viera, on making a fly before a fly fishing outing.
VIERA VOICE Keith Betterley
The Space Coast Chapter of Project Healing Waters, an international nonprofit dedicated to helping disabled veterans heal through fly fishing, is unequivocally making a difference in the lives of its members.
Meetings of the chapter are held on every second and fourth Thursday of each month at either the Viera VA Outpatient Clinic or at Faith Lutheran Church off Viera Boulevard. At meetings, participants learn to tie a variety of flies, including those of the freshwater, saltwater and streamer varieties after which trained volunteers teach members how to cast.
Those meetings, and perhaps the social dynamic that is associated with the group, have helped change lives.
Among those helped is 47-year-old Russell Marek of Viera, who was severely injured while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2005. Marek was in a tank that struck an improvised explosive device. As a result of that explosion, Marek lost his right arm and right leg, suffered a traumatic brain injury and was burned on 20 percent of his body.
“He lost his dominant limbs and his brain injury shut down everything on his left side, so much so that he had to learn how to swallow again,” said 74-year-old Viera resident Paul Marek, Russell’s father and the co-founder of the program along with his son and John Boyer.
“He couldn’t swallow. For 11 months, they just poured his nutrition directly into his stomach. With the help of family and with the help of other veterans, we now have him up and walking, albeit with canes.”
However, the program has given Russell and other members an opportunity to take their mind off past traumatic events and gives them an opportunity to socialize with others who have gone through adversity.
“They (volunteers) teach them everything there is to know about fly fishing. You meet new friends,” said Russell Marek. “…. Fly fishing is a total different sport than anything you’ve ever done.”
The program also had a profound impact on Marcus Ziegler, project lead for the chapter who medically retired after sustaining injuries while serving with the army in 2011 in Afghanistan.
“To say it changed my life would be an understatement,” said Ziegler, 37, of Port St. John. “…. It’s a tremendous feeling to know that there’s stuff out there to help you change, to help you get out of that darkness and I’ll be forever thankful for it.”
The chapter, which also has held trips to places such as St. Augustine, Fellsmere and Lone Cabbage Fish Camp to fish, started a little more than three years ago, according to Paul Marek. The chapter’s meeting on average attracts between 10 and 14 occupants, according to volunteer leader Marcia Ely.
“It gives them an outlet relative to something to do other than think about the rigors of the war they were in,” Paul Marek added. “…. We have seen people that would not talk to you if you’re talking on a normal basis. They would just sit there and hang their head. Start them tying flies and being with other veterans who are in the same situation as having been wounded or blown up and all of a sudden they come out of the shell.’’
Paul Marek added that the program, which is funded based on donations, always welcomes new members and volunteers. Those interested in more information regarding the program should go to projecthealingwaters.org.
“It’s an international program and, as we grow, more and more veterans will be able to benefit from it,” Paul Marek said.