SYRIA - First Lt. Eivind Forseth remembers the last words he heard in Iraq.
“You’re gonna go to sleep now,” an Army doctor told him.
Six days later, Forseth woke up at a U.S. Army hospital in Germany. He could not move what was left of his right arm.
Nearly two years after he was wounded in combat, Forseth is a man on a mission. He stands waist-deep in a Madison County river, nearly motionless, attentively casting toward the trout that lie downstream. He gently teases the line, getting his fly to swim about in the water - hoping for a bite.
A crowd has gathered along the opposite bank to watch the Army Ranger, who with a singular focus has been trying for nearly an hour to catch a fish in the late October waters flowing through Rose River Farm near Syria.
Suddenly Forseth’s pole bends sharply and a cry goes up from the crowd.
“You got it, brother!” one shouts.
Forseth snaps into action, but the trout bursts out of the water, launching itself nearly three feet into the air. It breaks free and gets away.
Forseth, a member of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, doesn’t flinch. He casts his line once again, and settles in silently to scan the water for movement.
Forseth and a dozen wounded veterans like him gathered at a fly-fishing spot in Madison County on Sunday as part of a search for deliverance after life took a dark and irrevocable course. Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit group begun by 30-year Navy veteran Ed Nicholson, seeks to use the techniques of tying flies and casting for fish to help wounded vets recover, both physically and emotionally. The group helps introduce the idea of fishing as a therapeutic endeavor to wounded servicemen being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
“We’re a pretty small group still, but we’ve started building word-of-mouth,” Nicholson said. “[The servicemen] who have come fishing with us really are the best advocates for convincing their friends to do the same.”
Forseth, who grew up fishing near Billings, Mont., has become perhaps the project’s most visible success story. He says there is no question getting out fishing again helped him to conquer the despair that followed his injury.
“What a day, I love it,” Forseth says. “Where else can you go to the hospital in the morning, get juiced up with antibiotics, go fishing all day, then head back.”
Forseth has undergone numerous surgeries on his arm, and currently has to report to Walter Reed
every eight hours to receive powerful antibiotics to ward off infection.
“To get out here, it’s like being reborn,” he says.
The future wasn’t always so promising for Forseth. In January 2005, his unit was patrolling the streets of Mosul in advance of Iraqi elections when an explosive device hidden in a taxicab detonated and ripped into his vehicle.
Forseth’s fellow soldiers were able to evacuate him under heavy fire, but their platoon leader was
seriously hurt. “I initially didn’t know how bad it was, the injury,” Forseth says.
His eye had been hurt and there was blood blurring his vision, but his right arm also felt strange - like it had been broken. Forseth had broken bones before, and says it felt like that’s what must have happened.
But another soldier saw the wound and rapidly tightened a tourniquet around Forseth’s right arm.
Nearly all the soft tissue, down to the bone, had been ripped off by the blast. Blood was gushing
“When he put on that tourniquet, I think that’s when I began to realize what had happened,” Forseth says.
What followed when Forseth was transferred to Germany and then ultimately back to Walter Reed
was a series of surgeries that saved his arm, but left the lower part paralyzed.
He fell into a serious depression, he says. “You’re just so used to being able-bodied and independent,” Forseth says. “To in a split-second become dependent on other people for everything, and to not know if you’d be able to do even basic tasks again for yourself … it’s not an easy thing to face.” Forseth says the surgeries, the pain, the lack of mobility -they began to take their toll, and he became apathetic as he lay in his bed at Walter Reed.
“There was a point where I just didn’t care about things anymore,” he says.
Then one day, Nicholson, who was just starting Project Healing Waters, came to see him. He had heard Forseth was from Montana. “Ed introduced himself and said, hey, how would you like to fly-fish with us?” Forseth says. The answer? No thanks. “I didn’t want to make a fool of myself,” Forseth says. “I didn’t want to fail.”
But the Ranger says his mother and others he cared about asked him to reconsider. Just try it, they said.
Finally, he did.
“Once I got out there, things slowly began to change,” he says. “I thought yes, I can really do this, and I started to come around … there’s no question it saved me.”
Forseth, ever a soldier and a leader, found a new calling. Not only has fishing been a path to his
own redemption, but he is determined to help others experience the same joy. “We’re very mission-minded, and this is my mission now,” he says.
One of those other wounded soldiers is Sgt. Russell Martin with the 160th Engineers out of Middletown, Del.
Martin, 26, also experienced a gruesome hand injury after the bus he was traveling in in Kuwait flipped over and he was crushed. Since that event in November, Martin has had 10 surgeries. His wife, Crystal Martin, says her husband also suffered bouts of despair after his injury, as his dream of joining the Delaware State Police, or even returning to his civilian job as a correctional officer, now seemed unlikely. “It was a question of, ‘What am I going to do now?’” she says. The fishing, she says, has made a big difference - not only for her husband but for them as a couple.
“It’s something we can do together, out here,” she says. “It lets us focus on something else,
What it’s all about The Martins head off to another spot on the river, where the two of them can fish together.
Nearby, Forseth stands in the river, gently bobbing his rod up and down to give his fly some action.
Two trout have bitten his line in the last 30 minutes only to get away, and another good lead
unfortunately turns out to be a piece of barbed wire.
But not this time. The line goes taut, and Forseth has no intention of letting this one get away.
The crowd on the opposite bank starts hooting and hollering as he pulls a large rainbow trout from the water.
“What a fish,” Forseth calls across to his fellow soldiers. “This is probably the best rainbow I’ve
ever seen.” And by no means, all agree, will it be the last.