For veterans who suffer the anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder, Project Healing Waters offers a life line through fly fishing.
And in Teller County, there’s a special place where trout and fishing inspire healing and a path forward.
Rainbow Falls Trout Hatchery north of Woodland Park is a peaceful refuge for veterans, particularly those who recently returned from the battlefield. “Healing Waters got me out of the house,” said Brady Busby, 45, who served seven tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, six in combat zones. “I had fly fished before but definitely picked up the passion again.”
By focusing on tying flies and casting the rod into one of the nine lakes at Rainbow Falls, Busby has recovered enough to begin helping others. “It’s getting a little piece of myself back,” he said. “Trout don’t live in ugly places. It’s getting outside and being with people.”
Today Busby serves the nonprofit organization as mentor and traveling ambassador with Healing Waters’ fishing trips around the state.
But along the way, a kind of serendipitous connection happened between Busby and Richard Johnson, who with his wife, Shawnna, owns the Rainbow Falls hatchery.
Former business owner in Iowa, Johnson had an epiphany a few years ago. “We’ve been Christians and involved in missions for years but we all have turning points in our lives,” he said. “I’d been on my first mission trip, came back and it just rocked my world.”
Johnson reflects on the effects of the trip. “I’ll never forget — sitting on the front porch of our house in Iowa one evening and I said to my wife, ‘How much is enough?’” he said.
Rather than striving for more — more sales, more money, a bigger house — the Johnsons sold the business and discovered the trout hatchery, which happened to be for sale. “We had no idea,” Johnson said.
Subsequently, the Johnsons sold the business in Iowa in 2008, packed up and today the two of them run the membership-only club. “It’s a wonderful life,” he said.
But through Healing Waters, Johnson felt he had another mission. “Being around veterans and truly seeing what the organization was about was an amazing thing; they are not specifically a Christian or religious organization but they are doing God’s work,” Johnson said.
When Busby and his wife, Sarah, suffered another tragedy, Johnson offered comfort. “My daughter, Ashley, passed away from suicide, and I was up here the day after it happened. Richard had some kind words and prayers,” Busby said. “He has really helped me out — just gone above and beyond to let me come up here to relieve my stress, to heal from the things I’ve been through.”
Busby medically retired from the Army in 2012 as a result of a brain injury suffered in Afghanistan. Three years later, in December 2015, he graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with a degree in geography and environmental studies with a minor in geology.
“I wanted to prove that I could graduate with a brain injury and walk across the stage without a cane,” he said. “Fly fishing actually got me off the cane — fishing stretched out my scar tissue and I got my range of motion back.”
In addition to his work with Project Healing Waters, Busby is a fishing guide with Peak Fly Shop.
Recently, he and Sarah founded the Ashley Busby Foundation, which awards scholarships to graduating seniors who show promise in the arts; the proceeds go back into the foundation.
Busby tells his story in “Healing Waters,” which is available on Amazon.
In the meantime, Project Healing Waters offers reciprocal rewards for veterans and their benefactors.
“Taking these guys, from hard places and bringing them out — I still get choked up thinking about it,” Johnson said. “I just cannot imagine — not having a military background — the hardships they’ve been through and he strength it takes to come out of that.”
In a place that spawns 6,000 trout a year, the hatchery on 101 acres is a business, but some have special privileges. “To come out and bring other guys along, that’s what Healing Water does so well, so our policy is that we never tell these guys no,” Johnson said. ‘”If that’s all we accomplish, then that’s everything. We’re blessed to be a part of this.”