By NORMAN MOODY | Florida Today

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — Jason Redler patiently watched and encouraged Russ Marek as he slowly wrapped thread around a fish hook and feathers to craft a fishing fly.

Redler is a volunteer instructor with Project Healing Waters, an organization that works to help in the physical and psychological rehabilitation of military veterans with disabilities from wars.

Marek, 43, of Viera, lost his right leg and right arm and suffered a brain injury and burns over 20 percent of his body, as well as other injuries when a roadside bomb exploded under his tank during a mission on Sept. 16, 2005 in Iraq.

“It helps me out, and it helps someone else,” said Redler, a Gulf War veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It helps both of us out.”

Marek, who was a staff sergeant in the Army, and others with the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 453, are receiving instructions from Project Healing Waters in fly tying and casting, and eventually will go on fly fishing outings.

“It's a new challenge,” said Marek, who is commander of Chapter 453. “It expands your imagination. I feel comfortable. I feel happy that they are teaching us something new.”

The Military Order of the Purple Heart is composed of military men and women who received the medal for wounds suffered in combat.

Among those participating in the project are veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to World War II who recently completed the third session of fly tying and casting.

John Boyer, a Vietnam-era veteran, worked for years to start the local chapter of Project Healing Waters and is now its coordinator.

“This is our third meeting, and we're running,” he said. “We're not going to grow it too big.”

Boyer, 62, said he wants to make sure he has enough volunteers to help the veterans.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing began in 2005 serving wounded military service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then it has expanded nationwide, establishing its program in Department of Defense hospitals, warrior transition units, and Veterans Affairs medical centers and clinics. It has 140 programs in 46 states and affiliate programs in Canada and Australia.

Marek, whose health has markedly improved in the years since he was injured, said the project has already been of great help to him and others. He has a prosthetic leg and a prosthetic arm. Marek uses a fly-tying vise called an Evergreen arm. The vise has magnets to help him get the intricate parts in place.

“You've got to be very imaginative for these things,” he said. “It takes your mind off everyday struggles. For newer veterans coming home, it will take their minds off war issues.”

Reynaldo Lebron, who served as a medic in the Army in World War II, the fly tying is a chance to get out and interact with fellow veterans.

“It reacquaints me with people who shared my experiences,” said Lebron, 90, of Satellite Beach, as he completed a fishing fly. “I've never fished but I might want to go fishing now.”

Alf Fischer showed Lebron the step-by-step basics of fly tying.

“You go over two, three, four times, then you snip it off,” he said as he wrapper orange thread around a fish hook and feathers to form a fly.

Fischer, 71, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Merritt Island, said he wanted to help some of the veterans including some from recent wars who are suffering from PTSD or other issues.

Bill Grady, 40, who served in the Navy, said he simply wants to share his passion of fly fishing while helping fellow veterans.

“It's a little thing compared to what these guys have done,” he said. “Besides, this is my passion. I do this all the time.”

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Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com