SAINT CLOUD, Minn. - Don Kane is knee-deep in the Mississippi River, clutching a fly fishing rod and coming to grips with his demons.
The former Marine is among the latest group of veterans to be immersed in Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.
Teamed with an experienced fly fisherman, Kane takes direction as he casts, again and again, against the backdrop of a September sunset.
He is half-a-year removed from the arrest last spring that brought him to his bottom. He was 40 pounds heavier then and drunk, his life playing out in a series of police encounters for driving while intoxicated and threatening the women in his life.
"Thought I could handle it, like all Marines think they can handle anything," he says now. "It's like a rat on a wheel, you can't get off."
Kane found Project Healing Waters not long after checking himself into St. Cloud's VA Medical Center for treatment of his alcoholism. He'd just been released after serving 72 days in the Ramsey County Jail.
"I think it's more about the healing than it is about the water," he laughs, "because we're not catching fish."
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing was started in 2005 at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Nearly 100 chapters have since sprung up in 38 states, including the program in St. Cloud.
Volunteers from the St. Cloud Fly Anglers club provide the expertise as veterans learn first to tie flies and then to fish with them.
"It's something we can do as citizens and that's why we're here," says Claude Neidlinger, a fly fisher who helped found the St. Cloud program after his nephew was killed in the war in Iraq.
"I think about my nephew," he continues, "I think about all the guys who went to Vietnam while I was in college that aren't here, it's probably the best way I could think of giving back."
Some 300 veterans have entered the St. Cloud program the past three-and-a-half years.
John Swanson joined Project Healing Waters as a VA patient and now teaches fly tying in the program himself.
Swanson lost his right leg in the Gulf War.
"When I first started with Project Healing Waters I was in a lot of pain from the surgery and things along those lines," he says. Swanson felt a release to be away from the medical part of his recovery and instead hanging around with people who "wanted to talk about fishing."
Kane says the program has reminded him of the satisfaction to be found in simple life experiences. "I see myself sitting in my kitchen making flies," he smiles, "having a cup of coffee in the morning and whipping a couple out."
Admiring the Mississippi River scenery, with his prosthetic leg in the water, Swanson is convinced of the healing power of the program. "Something else has been going on that has kept my attention in a positive way, that has allowed me to enjoy the beauty that we have out here."
In a box of colorful flies completed during his VA stay, Kane envisions more than just future fishing trips. "It represents a new beginning in my life," he says. "I don't want alcohol to define who I am any longer.
Clutching the fly fishing rod with the sun setting behind him, he adds, "There's a lot of good living to do."
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