MILWAUKEE — The squad has rendezvoused at 0800 hours just as it does each Thursday.
Al Dalphonso gives the orders. He’s not much for barking, though. More of a lead-by-example type.
“If you pinch it right and get the tension where it needs to be,” says Dalphonso, 66, “you don’t need a ton of knots.”
A U.S. Navy veteran, Dalphonso could be giving instructions on rigging or tying off a vessel.
But he’s holding a bunch of pearlescent mylar between his thumb and forefinger. With a thin black thread, he ties the material to a hook.
“You call this a pike fly?” says James White, 62, an Army veteran. “I’d like to take this one home and feed it.”
The synthetic, feather and fur creation is longer than many pet fish, no doubt about it. And it’s almost as big as some toy dog breeds.
“Remember that pond at Wern Valley has a musky in it,” Dalphonso says. “This fly is your ticket.”
The 10 men, half mentors and half patients, busily wrap long orange, yellow and silver strands to hooks.
The minutes fly by as the men focus on their creations in the art therapy room at the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee.
It’s the Thursday morning fly-tying class of Project Healing Waters, a program designed to assist in the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active-duty military personnel and veterans through fly fishing and fly tying.
Dalphonso and fellow members of Southeast Wisconsin Trout Unlimited provide the volunteer, expert instruction.
Several of the mentors are also vets, but it isn’t required.
The volunteers pair off with the class members and work on creating — flies, friendships, a support system.
“I had one vet tell me he didn’t fish,” Dalphonso says. “I told him it didn’t matter. This is art.”
Anyone who has tied flies or done needlepoint or dozens of other handicrafts knows the therapeutic value that comes with the activity.
A fly-tying program was initiated at Zablocki in 2006 by Chuck McCoy, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who enjoyed fly fishing and also was a patient at the hospital.
McCoy rounded up several avid fly tiers, including Winston, Mike Kolodczik and Joe Valcone, to provide an additional activity for vets.
Then, when Project Healing Waters was started in Milwaukee by Southeast Wisconsin Trout Unlimited in 2008, the program grew.
Fly-tying classes meet every Monday night and Thursday morning.
“It’s been a great addition,” says Kris Kulas, mental health therapist for the last 24 years at Zablocki. “The guys and gals get a little tired of seeing my face all the time, and this brings in new people and new experiences.”
The volunteers with Project Healing Waters, Kulas says, made the addition of a new program easy, providing equipment, bodies and expertise.
Zablocki has veterans that span several generations and wars — World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent conflicts.
“This program reaches all of them,” Kulas says. “That’s really important.”
The class has made flies ranging from “trout dandruff,” as volunteer Knitter calls the tiny size 18s and 20s, to 6-inch-long feathery concoctions designed to tempt musky and northern pike.
As with all the activities of Project Healing Waters, fly tying helps the veterans identify themselves by something other than their injuries.
Knitter, 66, says he wishes there had been a program such as Project Healing Waters when he came back from Vietnam.
“We were just supposed to assimilate,” said Knitter, of Milwaukee. “No one wanted to talk about what we went through.”
Project Healing Waters includes fly tying as a step to healing. The program also includes fly casting and fly fishing outings. A rod-building class is also offered periodically.
As with so many volunteer activities, it’s beneficial to the mentors, too.
“One of the things where you do something and you feel good about it,” said Winston, 76.
Trout Unlimited awards the participants with a fly-tying kit if they stay with the program for six weeks.
Greg Simons, 61, served in the Air Force. Due to injuries, Simons had to learn to use his hands in a new way.
“Good little hobby to do at home,” Simons said. He keeps his flies in pill bottles.
Clowry sits at Simons’ elbow, encouraging him.
Pankau has Parkinson’s Syndrome. His hands shake at rest but not when he ties flies.
He has a collection of more than 800 hand-tied flies.
“My goal is to become a mentor for the guys in the spinal cord unit,” says Pankau.
Hopkins, serving today as a mentor, began the program as a patient. He credits TU volunteer Zoan Kulinski for helping him learn to love fly tying and fly fishing.
Hopkins’ skill and dedication to the craft earned him first place in the 2010 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition.
He’s planning to enter again this year. His theme? Salmon flies in a handmade shadow box.
The Project Healing Waters program is branching out. A group of program graduates, including Hopkins, is starting a fly tying class at Veteran Quest in West Allis, Wis.
They will teach what they’ve learned.
“You don’t need to be a patient forever,” Kulas says. “It’s a great way to share the wealth.”
As the veterans have learned: With fly tying, there is always room to grow.