Over the years, muscular dystrophy has chipped away at Rick Warrington’s body. The disease confines the retired Army Sgt. 1st Class to a wheelchair, saps his strength and weakens his muscles.

But for all the damage muscular dystrophy has done to Warrington, one feature remains vibrant: His hands courtesy of making rods for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing.

Warrington learned the skill while a three-year member of the organization’s Fort Belvoir chapter. Warrington joined the outfit in 2015 as a form of physical therapy. He’d fly fished before, but never tied flies or built rods, the two key components of PHWFF.

The detail-oriented work takes patience and diligence. Warrington noticed the result strengthened his hands to the point he saw an immediate difference, once he started constructing rods. His therapist at Johns Hopkins also noticed the improvement much to the therapist’s amazement.

Encouraged by the experienced PHWFF staff at Belvoir, Warrington found a purpose and filled a void that not only benefits him, but others as well.

The Waterloo, Iowa resident makes rods to raise money for PHWFF. He’s become such a craftsman that his signature rods have gone for as much as $3,100.

A place for healing

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is the brainchild of Ed Nicholson. A retired Navy officer, Nicholson wanted to find a way to use fly fishing and tying as a way to provide physical and emotional rehabilitation for “disabled active military service personnel and veterans.”

The Belvoir has 92 members and is one of the organization’s largest groups.

Belvoir’s PHWFF is overseen by a team of 15 volunteer instructors. Bob Gartner, the program’s current lead, discovered PHWFF a decade ago after seeing an ad in a fly fishing magazine looking for instructors.

Gartner loves participating each year with PHWFF and seeing how the program helps disabled military members come out of their shell.

“I thought at first fishing was the most important thing,” Gartner said. “Fishing draws them in, but the hanging out together is what keeps them coming back.”

Coming together

Typically, the group takes one trip a month. But the pandemic has limited outings. Instead, they meet virtually every Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. to discuss techniques or listen to presentations.

Warrington remembers being in a dark place at one time where he stared at the wall. PHWFF allowed him to associate with other Soldiers who can relate to his feelings.

“One of the best things is not just the physical therapy, but the emotional therapy,” Warrington said. He moved to Iowa in 2017, but comes back each year for the season-ending trip to Harman’s Cabins in West Virginia. He loves the camaraderie and the fishing.

Warrington recalled one year when he chose to light up a cigar even though he had yet to catch a fish. Gartner needled Warrington, telling him he violated protocol. You only celebrate your victory once you catch a fish.

Warrington saw it differently.

“I’m here. That’s a victory.”

For more information on the Belvoir chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, contact Bob Gartner at 202-494-5778 or at bgartner422@gmail.com. You can also go to https://www.facebook.com/BelvoirPHW/.