June 27 is national Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day, in conjunction with the entire month of June dedicated to PTSD awareness. One project in Anchorage seeks to help injured military personnel deal with life’s stresses.
Project Healing Waters is a local non-profit organization that assists wounded military service members recover by teaching them fly fishing, an activity many find calming and peaceful, including veteran Manfred Aponte.
“Freedom isn’t free” is a phrase Aponte knows only too well, a hard truth learned throughout his service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two of Aponte’s friends gave their lives in the line of duty, and their memories are never far away for Aponte when he’s out on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Green Lake.
“My soldiers died doing their job, no matter what anybody says,” Aponte said.
Aponte wears two bracelets with their names, to remind him to never forget their sacrifice. It's the kind of grief, Aponte says, which can stick with you no matter what you do.
“Sometimes my wife gets mad because I don’t open up to her, even though she’s in uniform too,” Aponte said. “It’s different; I don’t know how to explain it.”
But being out on the water gives Aponte a chance to be around others who can understand the sentiment and grief, like retired veteran Todd Green, who says his experience was “the best and worst thing that ever happened” to him.
Green came to Alaska in 2004, after serving in Afghanistan. Two years later, he was redeployed to Iraq. After two deployments, Green’s body began to feel the effects of his time in the field, suffering from a traumatic brain injury and multiple muscle and ligament tears in his knee.
“It's not that I had enough of the Army,” Green says of his retirement. “But it was time for me to step aside and let soldiers that I had trained before me to step in to my role.”
Project Healing Waters has helped Green prepare for his next important life -- role as a father. When life’s stresses begin to eat at him, he takes to the water.
“I have days where I have trouble coping with different stresses of my life,” Green said. “So if I have a bad day, I can grab my fly rod.”
Green also sits with others at a fly-tying station designed to help them focus, an activity offered every Thursday by the project to military personnel.
“It's not easy for me to talk to somebody in uniform, somebody that had been there before,” Aponte explained. “They didn't live what I lived. They know where I've been and I can tell them and release that pressure I had on myself. Honestly. I'm not thinking about anything at all, and that's one of the good points about it -- because someone with PTSD, they have a lot of intrusive thoughts or flashbacks.”
Instead, the two retired soldiers and others like them sit back, finding comfort in nothing but the sound of those near them who have shared their struggle.
Last year, Project Healing Waters’ Alaska staff provided 5,400 volunteer hours while helping 78 individuals. So far this year, the project has assisted 32 people.