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Charlotte-area veterans keep calm, cast a fly rod

Nights are the worst for Calvin Norton. Fitful sleep comes amid nightmares about combat missions from 45 years ago. Around him, he sees fellow infantrymen killed and maimed. He stares into the face of the North Vietnamese soldier he shot – after the soldier killed two of Norton’s buddies in an ambush.

But during the day, Norton finds respite while standing in a rushing river, focused on the fly rod in his hands. There, he feels safe, surrounded by nature and other disabled veterans.

“It’s not a cure-all,” said Norton, 66, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. “But it’s calmed me down tremendously.”

He’s talking about Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.

Norton is one of about 30 veterans who participate in the Charlotte-area program, part of a national nonprofit dedicated to helping disabled veterans transition to civilian life.

Under the leadership of expert fly fisherman Steve Patterson of Indian Trail, vets learn to tie flies and build rods in classes at the Salisbury VA Medical Center. Then they test their skills during outings to places such as Stone Mountain State Park near Elkin, Mitchell River near Dobson, and Ararat River near Mount Airy.

It’s fun, for sure, but the real point is to help vets cope with anxiety, anger and flashbacks – some of the lingering effects of serving in war zones.

Many of the participants have PTSD, an anxiety disorder that can occur after someone has gone through an extreme emotional trauma that involved the threat of injury or death.

“Fly fishing is like giving your mind a shower,” said Patterson, 73, who served in the U.S. Army 101st and 82nd airborne divisions from 1960-63, but didn’t see combat.

“Whenever the flashbacks come in these guys’ minds, they’ve got to find a way to get rid of that stress. They sit behind a tying bench and tie flies,” Patterson said. “It’s artistry. Some guys are tying these super fancy flies that they never fish with. It’s their stress reliever.”

The Charlotte-area program started in 2008, but really took off when Patterson took over in early 2013. He’s a member of the Carolina Fly Fishing Club, which provides volunteers to teach various skills – Gary Jones of Sherrills Ford is a master rod builder; Jack Cummings of Huntersville is casting instructor; Christopher Roche of Huntersville is the fly-tying instructor; and Patterson leads the fishing expeditions.

In two years, the group has grown from six to 30. “Working with these guys is my way of giving back to the guys who went through combat,” Patterson said.

Relief from flashbacks

To qualify for Project Healing Waters, veterans must have some form of service-related disability. Patterson said some in the Charlotte program have missing limbs, and some are in wheelchairs. But it’s the ones with PTSD, whose disabilities are less visible to the eye, who seem to get the most from program.

“They need a way to get their minds off the flashbacks,” Patterson said. “That’s where this program shines.”

About 30 percent of Vietnam vets have had PTSD in their lifetimes, according to the National Center for PTSD . An estimated 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experience PTSD in a given year.

A changed man

It took Calvin Norton of Huntersville years to find peace.

He was only 19 when he was sent to Vietnam in 1968. He was an Army infantryman and spent a lot of time in jungle firefights. During his year there, he saw about 25 comrades “mangled and tore apart.”

He came home traumatized. But in 1969, PTSD hadn’t yet been identified as a real problem. And there wasn’t any treatment offered to Norton through the VA.

For almost 40 years, Norton said he suffered from depression, as well as anxiety and panic attacks, that made him irritable, overbearing and hostile. He said he wasn’t easy for his wife and daughter to live with. But he stayed married and held down good jobs, first with the FBI near Washington, and then with a manufacturing company in Charlotte.

In 2008, Norton said he had a “mental breakdown” and stayed at the VA hospital in Salisbury. By that time, PTSD had become well-recognized, and one of the social workers referred him to Project Healing Waters.

“It helps you with problem-solving by learning new skills,” Norton said. “When you’re trying to make that perfect cast, your mind is working (and you’re not) thinking about your trauma.”

When Norton started in the group, Patterson said he was “kind of standoffish, not talking much.” But over time, the change has been “unbelievable,” Patterson said.

“This guy stands up in meetings, talks about how it’s working for him,” Patterson said. “He’s just in love with the program. He saw what it did for him.”

In 2012, Norton’s fly rod was chosen as one of the Top 10 in the national Project Healing Waters competition. Today, he’s an instructor for the Charlotte group.

“I try to fish several times a month, every chance I get,” Norton said. “Just being out, I get around the water and hear it trickle and stuff, and it really settles me down. It’s a safe haven.”