HELENA — Staff Sgt. Cheyne Unckles first went fly fishing with Montana Project Healing Waters after returning from his second deployment to Iraq in 2010. He loved it and took a fly tying class with the group, and took some fly-tying gear along on his third Iraq tour.
It helped Unckles, a Blackhawk helicopter crew chief with the Montana National Guard 1-189th General Aviation Support Battalion, relax during downtime “and take my mind off the craziness.”
Saturday, Unckles will begin his fourth tour of service in Asia, and this time he’ll be teaching other soldiers to tie flies, using equipment and supplies furnished by Healing Waters.
The group is sending about $5,000 worth of the gear along with the battalion, hoping five or six “mentors” among the soldiers will spread the activity to their comrades, helping them gain its mental and physical benefits and giving them a positive goal — going fishing with the flies — for when they come home.
It’s the newest initiative by the Healing Waters, which in addition to classes and trips works with the Veterans Administration Montana Medical Center at Fort Harrison, introducing the pastime to veterans receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.
All its activities are free of charge, and the group even has a couple of drift boats available for use.
Staff Sgt. Raymond Leonhardt, also a helicopter crew chief, said fly tying was his calming pre-sleep ritual on his third deployment in Iraq.
He was introduced to fishing on a Healing Waters trip and took a tie-flying class from Bob Lay, the group’s president.
At first in Iraq, it took Leonhardt about an hour to make one fly, and by the end of the trip he was making about six or eight in an hour. He returned with more than 300 and has been tying and fishing ever since.
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Col. James Wilkins, commander of the approximately 150 soldiers deploying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, said the activity gives them a new skill and a relaxing outlet, absolutely different from the tasks at hand in the military mission.
“The benefits are huge,” he said.
The equipment heading abroad includes small vices mounted on stands and various tools to handle the numerous variations on thread and hair that, tied together, can be made to look and behave like a fly, at least in the view of a fish in a Montana stream.
Unckles said he likes the structure and “smooth flow” of the activity and the focus and concentration it requires. He’s no Bob Lay, but is ready to share what he knows with other soldiers.
“I’m kind of excited to be on the opposite end of this,” he said.
Lay wants the group to reach more volunteers and veterans. It launched a website (montanahealingwaters.com) about three months ago and Saturday will start selling tickets for a fundraising raffle.
Jim Martinez, a Healing Waters board member, said soldiers and veterans helping others heal help their own healing as well.
“It’s just amazing to watch,” said Martinez, himself a Vietnam veteran. “As soon as they catch that first fish, it’s like they’re children again.”