By DON WADE | The Daily News

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)–He's better. Army Special Forces veteran Paul Holcomb is sure of that much.

He doesn't disappear for days at a time anymore, unsure how he came to be lying in the bushes with a rifle in his hand.

True, he still doesn't like crowds, "If I'm around a lot of people I'm thinking, `who's the bad guy here?''', and when he is in restaurants he sits with his back against the wall.

"If I can't put my back to the wall, I leave,'' Holcomb, 44, and a veteran of Iraq,

Afghanistan, Bosnia and other combat zones, said as he practiced his casting at Beaver Lake in Shelby Farms Park.

Now if Holcomb measures his post-traumatic stress disorder on a scale of 1 to 10, he figures he fluctuates between 4 and 6 most of the time. It's part of his everyday life, but since he became involved with Project Healing Waters he has slowly gotten better.

Turns out, at least for Holcomb and a lot of other vets with one or more disabilities, learning the gentle art of fly fishing has been a godsend.

"It's my drug of choice,'' he said.

For the record, he wasn't on drugs or abusing alcohol when he wound up the bushes with a rifle in his hands. He was just trying to go back to the life he knew; from 1998 through 2006 he was overseas in the Special Forces.

If this brings to mind the recent movie "American Sniper'' and the story of Chris Kyle, who struggled to adapt to civilian life after he finished serving his country, it's with good reason. To watch that movie was to see his own reflection.

"I felt like that for a year,'' Holcomb said.

Today, Project Healing Waters has more than 180 chapters nationwide and is in Australia and Canada. Holcomb is a program graduate and now a program leader in Jackson, Tenn.

Project Healing Waters founder Ed Nicholson was a retired Navy captain and in 2005 was hospitalized in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He saw wounded vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and he thought it might do them some good to accompany him on fly fishing outings. That was the genesis.

What Nicholson discovered is that the simple act of tying flies, fly fishing, and spending time with other vets both in classes and in the outdoors had therapeutic value that could not be gleaned from a book, video or formal counseling session.

"It allows these guys to unplug from the daily grind of trying to recover,'' Nicholson told The Wall Street Journal. "They don't come here to think about their problems and how they're going to overcome them. They come here not to think. It gives them margins in their life again.''

And to that, Holcomb and local volunteers Ken Swinburne and Mike Marshall say

"Amen.''

The act of tying flies also helps vets recovering from PSTD or brain injuries, Swinburne says, because tying a fly requires doing things in sequence. And that's an area of challenge.

Healing Waters is a nonprofit and relies on fundraising, sponsorships and donations.

When a veteran comes into a class, everything he or she will need is paid for, including a fly rod with a retail value of around $300. Locally, Bass Pro Shops is a sponsor and assistance also comes from Mid-South Fly Fishers.

Swinburne and Marshall hoped the local chapter here would spawn others in the region and that's what has happened. When veterans graduate from the program, which has classes that run for three or four months, Marshall ties flies that match each vet's campaign ribbon for wherever they served, Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Holcomb is on disability and his 291 parachute jumps contributed much wear and tear on his body: surgeries on both shoulders and a total of 11 knee surgeries. A few months ago, he started having seizures for which he has received no diagnosis.
Still, in spite of it all, he voices no regrets.

"I loved it,'' he said of being in Special Forces. "I'd do it all over again. Even though it cost me two marriages.''

Fly fishing, he says, isn't unlike free falling from an airplane – a dimension in time and space all its own.

Holcomb found Project Healing Waters in time to save the man lying in the bushes with the rifle in his hand.

"If it wasn't for the VA inpatient treatment and getting involved in this, I probably would have taken my own life a long time ago.''
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Information from: The Memphis Daily News, http://www.memphisdailynews.com