I have to admit that I was - at least at first - intimidated by one of the veterans who attended the class. Don't misunderstand ... he was affable, funny ... just a great guy to be around. I'll buy him a beer if ever the opportunity presents itself. But he was also an amputee. His left arm had been removed just below the shoulder, and I have to admit - with some shame - that I was at first terrified of working with him because I had no idea how he was going to accomplish the most basic movements required of a fly tyer. Perhaps more to the point, I had no idea how we were going to teach him.
I should not have been concerned; he may have been an amputee, but he was also a soldier. He adapted to the nuances of tying as I am sure he has had to adapt in most every other aspect of his life. His Woolly Bugger was tied at least as well as any other in the class, and I learned a very valuable lesson as a result. I'll never again underestimate the strength of will and of character that most people possess.
What I should have done - from the very beginning of the class - was remember an interview I conducted some 18 months ago, with another wounded veteran. Staff Sergeant Josh Williams is a good man - a soldier, a husband, a father - and his story is an inspiration. What follows is the piece I wrote all those months ago, including my interview with Sergeant Williams and some video of Josh in action.
Project Healing Waters: Josh Williams
As I've mentioned several times in the nearly two years that I've maintained this blog, I count Shawn Brillon as one of my closest friends and fishing partners. Shawn is one of the fly fishing product developers for the Orvis company; he is generally responsible for the flies and fly tying material we see in the catalog every year.
Recently, Shawn and I were discussing such mundane things as line choice for certain two-handed rods, and the crop of new flies Orvis is likely to offer this year. At the end of that discussion, Shawn spoke of a gentleman from Virginia whose acquaintance he was happy to have made.
I was intrigued by Josh Williams' story not only because he's both a fly flinger and a tyer, but also because he was a soldier. Staff Sergeant Williams carried his country's banner into combat, and like so many of our nation's warriors, he served with distinction. This is not, however, what what makes Sergeant Williams unique.
What makes Josh unique is his tenacity (think of how frustrating it might be to tie goose biots onto a nymph with only one hand). This stubborn refusal to allow life to pass him by was made manifest after he and I exchanged a few emails, and Josh very graciously agreed to be interviewed for The Rusty Spinner.
Williams: Joined the Army right out of high school (Roanoke, VA) on 31 July 2002 as an infantryman. After basic, I was put on orders to 2-7 CAV, 1CD at Fort Hood, TX. I was the automatic rifleman in my squad, so I carried the SAW (M249) and the 240B. In February of 2004, my unit was deployed to Iraq. We fought in Al Najaf, Baghdad, Sadir City, Fallujah, and Taji. Came back in March of 2005. Became a squad leader and eventually a Staff Sergeant on my 4 year service mark. I had full intentions of becoming a career soldier. God had other plans for me…
TRS: Let's address the 800 pound gorilla in the room ... How did you lose your arm, and how has that injury affected your life?
Williams: I was riding my motorcycle to guard duty on 6 April 2006, when a kid in a car ran a stop sign. I had no time to stop. I went through his window, and out the windshield. I then super-manned 171 feet in the air before finally falling. I was air lifted to a local hospital. My injuries included a severed right arm a couple inches above the elbow, a broken ankle with a nasty scar, a huge gash in my right thigh that got a skin graph, a shattered right femur that now has a titanium rod throughout, 3 broken bones in my back, and random road rash scars. Naturally, God graced me with being the only person in my family that is left handed. So that’s awesome! But I still needed to learn how to do every single thing I’d ever learned all over again. To say the least, depression set in quickly.
TRS: How did you come to fly fishing?
Williams: I was flown to Walter Reed Medical Hospital about a month after the wreck. These guys, John Bass and Ed Nicholson, came in to the hospital one day and introduced themselves to me. They were part of a non-profit called Project Healing Waters. Ed had started this to give a way for disabled vets, mentally and physically, a way of healing and therapy unlike anything else. I wanted no part of it. I was always a huge hunter and fisherman. But fly fishing looked impossible with two arms so why would I try with one? I certainly wasn’t gonna embarrass myself trying this with one arm! But after some persistence, thanks to John Bass (a paraplegic fly fisherman mind you), I gave in. I adapted fast and quickly became obsessed with the sport. Through the obstacles accomplished with fly fishing, I was able to tackle others like tying my own shoes and shooting one-armed.
TRS: When did you start fly tying?
Williams: I was retired from the Army and left Walter Reed in February of 2007. Shortly after, PHW was taking off like a wildfire. They decided to start one where I lived in Roanoke, VA. I was partnered with some guys to start it off, and it caught on pretty quickly. One evening, we had our first tying class with the vets at the Salem VAMC we volunteered at. I decided to try so I couldn’t give the vets there an excuse not to. And when it was all said and done, I tied the ugliest most pathetic woolly bugger ever tied! But I TIED IT!!! I took one of our kits home and it was all over. I was hooked.
TRS: How much time do you spend per day / per week at the vise or on the river?
Williams: I am married to my best friend, Lisa Williams. She is the best therapy I have. She knows firsthand how therapeutic fishing/tying is to me and has never batted an eye any time I’ve ever done either. I even got the chance to spend 8 days in Canada and she was totally supportive! I am also a student at Old Dominion University via satellite classes, while working full time at an architectural/engineering firm in Roanoke called Aecom. I stay busy! However, I still manage to fish almost every weekend. During Spring and Summer, I will even fish after work for a couple hours once or twice a week. I tie at least an hour almost every single evening. It is that enjoyable to me. All this fishing is definitely going to be reduced though, in the near future. Lisa and I are expecting our first child, 28 May. We find out the sex in two days and I’m as anxious as I’ve ever been! I have a feeling I’ll be taking our child out fishing before he/she can walk though ha ha.
TRS: Can you give examples of what you do differently from those anglers and tyers who have use of both hands?
Williams: When I fish, I have to tie all my knots with one hand. I don’t ever use a prosthetic. I strip the line out with my teeth. I also bring the line in with my teeth as well. I am definitely a fan of roll casting. I try to manipulate all the line I have out, so I don’t have to keep stripping in and out with my teeth. Tying is actually much more challenging to me. I can’t spin hair as easily as one with two hands. I have to kind of separate my hand into two hands when tying one parts. A few fingers are wrapping the thread, while a couple others are attempting to hold the material in place. I taught myself to whip finish by using my index finger to twirl the line around because a whip finisher scares me to death to try to use!
TRS: When did you learn that Orvis was going to offer your fly in the company's catalog, and what was your reaction?
Williams: A friend that works for Orvis, Leigh Oliva, told me I should submit my pattern “Josh’s White Lightning” to Orvis after seeing me catch a bunch of trout with it at a PHW tournament. I said what the heck. At that time, I had just started an online business of tying patterns from home. I figured what better way to improve my patterns than tying for others. You see, I didn’t want to send someone a sloppy fly, so I strived to improve the quality of my flies. It has definitely worked. I found out last fall from Shawn Brillon, the guy that makes or breaks the deal of fly submissions, that my pattern had passed the board and would be in the 2011 catalogue. What a feeling of accomplishment!!! I still can’t believe it, so periodically throughout the day I go to the website to see my pattern ha ha.
TRS: Have you any other "secret" flies in your arsenal that might someday be offered for sale?
Williams: I have a stonefly pattern that I’m trying to perfect because I just love using them and they’re so abundant in the healthy streams I fish. I also have a dry fly version of my purple white lightning that works great on wild brookies, but looks weak. I just don’t like how it looks. I’ll eventually find the right combination of materials. There’s another killer nymph I tie, but for the life of me I can’t remember anything about it ……….. Oh well …….
TRS: Finally, have you any advice or words of wisdom that you might offer not only to other fly anglers, but also to men and women who - like yourself - find themselves face to face with seemingly overwhelming injuries and obstacles?
Williams: As far as advice, I believe that we must teach our youth the things that are so important to us. We can’t expect them to pick up on fly fishing if we don’t take them out. It may be frustrating, but just remember that you too were that bad at first! If you’re a disabled soldier or civilian, don’t be so discouraged to not even try. That’s not the way to live. Be stubborn. It’s because of our Lord giving me a whole bunch of it that I’m able to get out there without embarrassing myself too much! And remember, there is always always always someone out there who’s got it worst than you! You can do it, you just have to learn how to do it your own special way.
I don't know that there's much TRS might add to anything Josh had to say. I would just like to take the opportunity to thank Sergeant Williams for taking the time to talk fishing with us. I'd also like to congratulate he and his wife on the upcoming birth of their first child. I hope that in between diaper changes and teething rings, fate gives Josh and I the opportunity to wet a line together. He has an open invitation to the river.