Veterans from throughout the nation continue healing through local Bamboo Bend Project
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Daniel Elliott is in the midst of being processed out of the armed forces, and sought a break to build his own bamboo fly rod and to fish on the area’s prized trout streams last week.
Elliot was among eight disabled military veterans who took part in the eighth annual Bamboo Bend Project at the Lovells Township Community Center last week.
Elliot is currently assigned to the Marine Security Augmentation Unit, which deploys to diplomatic facilities that are in duress to bolster security. The team does security for the president, vice president and secretary of state. His role has taken him to Africa, Europe and Asia.
A native of Horseheads, New York, Elliott served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013.
“It’s been a great experience. If I had the chance to do it over again, I would do it over again,” he said. “You get to learn to appreciate others, different cultures, religions, and other walks of life, and you appreciate the life we have.”
Due to an injury, Elliott is being forced to leave the Marine Corps. He sought out to learn about fly fishing through Project Healing Waters, a non-profit organization aimed at helping veteran find peace in their lives through the sport.
Elliott is in a stressful part of his life as he faces leaving the armed forces, but found some respite in the area last week with his fellow veterans.
“A lot these guys, the reason they are coming here is to get away from the VA and to get away from whatever demons they’re fighting and this is doing that for me,” Elliott said.
Bamboo Bend, a locally organized and funded project which has the motto “Handcrafted Healing for Heroes,” brought the military veterans to the Grayling area for a nine-day stay.
Josh Ferrett, from Lexington, North Carolina, served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. His primary job was working as an engineer, operating heavy equipment, construction, and providing electricity.
Ferrett’s unit also served as a military transition team for the Iraqi Army.
“We kind of worked side by side with them to patrol and show them how to do them while we’re out in the combat theaters,” he said.
Ferrett survived three improvised explosive device (IED) blasts, was set on fire, and was shot once.
“It gives me mobility issues. There are certain PTSD aspects to it,” he said. “It kind of changes your whole outlook on life and you get a new appreciation for things.”
Ferrett became hooked on rod building through Project Healing Waters and is a self-professed bamboo nut. He cherished his time learning how to make a bamboo rod in Lovells last week.
“One of the things that helps put me at peace and I find the enjoyment in doing is making rods, and now I’m getting the tools and trades to learn how to build bamboos from my own blanks instead of having to order the blanks from somebody else,” he said.
Fred Larson served in the U.S. Army in 1967-68 in the Vietnam War, when the most intensive battles of the war were being fought.
“It was one of the biggest military buildups in history, and we still stopped them,” Larson said.
Larson became involved with project Healing Waters through counseling.
“It has become one of the favorite things I’ve got going in my life, and it’s something I can look forward to once a week,” he said.
Larson relished his time making his own bamboo rod and going on guided floats on the AuSable River and Manistee River.
“Coming down here to build a rod is one of the things I’ve dreamed about all of my life,” Larson said. “I’ve made a lot of rods, but I’ve never actually made one from the ground up. This is just fantastic.”
Jim Short, from Wartrace, Tennessee, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1965 to 74 U.S. and in the U.S. Army from 1975 to 1995. He did not make it to Vietnam, although he served during that era.
“I heard a lot of stories of course,” Short said. “All of my Army buddies were Vietnam veterans and the stories I heard were not equivalent to the real thing.”
Over the years, Short sustained a number of injuries which allowed him to gain 100 percent disability through the military. He learned to fly fish as a boy, and was reintroduced to the sport through Project Healing Waters.
“All of them, it just felt like brothers, so I decided to stay around a while at least and the more I got into it, the better I liked it,” Short said. “I just continued, and now I am teaching veterans how to use a fly rod and how to tie flies and that sort of thing.”
Short said he appreciated the bamboo rod instructors passing along their knowledge and their willingness to work with the veterans.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “This is the first experience I have had with guys that knew about bamboo, and it’s been a new experience for me and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.”
Mark Mackey, from Ashland, Wisconsin, who served 23 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman, completed his third year as president for Bamboo Bend Project.
One big change in the program this year is the veterans stayed at the Fuller’s North Branch Outing Club.
“It’s been immensely convenient. There is not a 30-minute or 40-minute drive one way each day, so that saves us a lot of time,” Mackey said. “Judy Fuller has been a very gracious host. She’s been very accommodating. She’s been very supportive of our cause and our veterans.”
Larson said he appreciated taking in some of the rich history at the Fuller’s North Branch Outing Club.
“You can’t see it all in one time,” he said. “You’ve got to keep wandering from room to room.”
This is the first year Bamboo Bend has hosted an active duty military member.
“It’s a blend of veterans from all eras. Everyone gets along wonderfully. We’re all in the same brotherhood, and there is just an instant mutual respect there,” Mackey said. “They show up as strangers on day one, and they’re all going to leave as brothers when they return to their homes.”
Eight professional river guides were matched up with the veterans over the weekend to fish local rivers.
“They won’t accept anything,” Mackey said. “They do this pro bono, out of the goodness of their hearts, and we really appreciate that.”
The veterans paid a visit to the Gates AuSable Lodge and the Holy Waters, a catch and release only waters on the main branch of the AuSable River.
“They get out to absorb some of the history of the area,” Mackey said. “We’re trying to spread the wealth each year and we are going to different places.”
All rod instructors, cooks, and the director for Bamboo Bend volunteer their time.
Steve Taylor has been involved with the project for six years, both as riverboat guide and a split cane rod instructor.
Taylor said the veterans deserve to go out and have fun while they are in the community.
“It’s just a good thing. You’re doing a good thing for a lot of people who have done a lot,” Taylor said. “They sacrifice their entire lives. Even though they’re still here, they’re still sacrificing because they carry those wounds – whether you can see them or not.”
Dave Jankowski served as the lead instructor for the program. There are eight instructors assigned to each work bench and two roving instructors.
“It makes it so much easier to do this work with so much skill and knowledge in the room,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski, who served 20 plus years in the U.S. Air Force Air National Guard, said it is a privilege to be part of the program.
“I thank them for their sacrifice they’ve made and that their families have made,” he said.
The veterans are hand selected to take part of Bamboo Bend.
“For the foreseeable future, it’s eight seats a year, so the competition is keen,” Mackey said.
Lovells Township Supervisor Gary Neumann, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, said the township is proud to host the veterans.
“The township’s perspective is it’s something that we not only appreciate what they did, but we think it’s appropriate to allow them to spend a week here making the rods, enjoying out natural resources, and fishing on the rivers,” he said.