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Meet the Participants: 2014 PHWFF 2-Fly Tournament

Posted on 4/22/2014 by Daniel Morgan

Meet the participants in The 8th Annual PHWFF 2-Fly Tournament. This year, 12 Pro/Vet teams, comprised of two veterans with a professional fly-fishing guide, compete on Sunday April 27th, 2014 at beautiful Rose River Farm. These veterans will be fishing, and competing, in the tournament with the assistance of professional guides during this flagship PHWFF event.

Captain Kimberly Ramona Smith 

USMC | Afghanistan 

Kim was born in Granada Hills, CA.  She was raised by a single Mother and her Grandparents.  Since the age of 10, her dream was to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a U.S. Marine.  Her Father passed away when she was 10 and had served in the Korean War, becoming a POW and earning a Purple Heart. 

Her Brother enlisted in the Marine Corps and graduated boot camp from MCRD San Diego when she was 12 becoming an Infantry Machine Gunner, Recon Parachute Combat Driver 0331, 0326.

Kim graduated from Douglas High School, a small town in northern Nevada near Lake Tahoe.  Her step-father, who would become the closest thing to a father she ever knew, was also a former Marine (Infantry Rifleman / Infantry Unit Leader 0311, 0369) and taught Kim over the years military skills and weaponry.  Growing up Kim and her step-dad enjoyed the outdoors, camping, and fishing.  She also loved hunting, ranch work, played varsity sports in high school , and volunteer work.  Kim planned on enlisting in the Corps because that was the family tradition and she never imagined she could ever go to college or ever afford it.  No one in her family had ever gone to college before.   While in high school, she was accepted to the FBI Academy as an Explorer Cadet.  Through the Explorer program, she found out about Texas A&M and The Corps of Cadets.  

In Spring of 2000 Kim graduated High School early and enrolled at Texas A&M University with a scholarship of instate tuition. Realizing that anything is possible if you work real hard and believe.  While attending Texas A&M, she was a varsity rugby athlete and held a 40hr/wk job.  Kim graduated in 2006 with BS in Kinesiology and Nutrition.  Kim was also selected to play rugby for the U.S. Team from 2000-2006.

Kim attended 10 weeks of OCS in 2004 graduating with Honors.  Kim was commissioned as a 2ndLt 2006 through the Platoon Leaders Course and was sent directly to TBS.  Graduating from The Basic School in the top 10% of her class and receiving the Iron Susan Award for top Physical Fitness Award, she was given the opportunity to choose her Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).  She chose to become a 0402, Marine Logistics Officer.  Following graduation from TBS she attended her MOS school in Camp Johnson, NC and again graduated top 10% in the class, choosing Camp Pendleton, CA for duty station.

In 2008, she was transferred to Head Quarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, CA.  She was assigned as the 2nd Platoon Commander, Truck Company Bravo and assigned to 1ST Battalion 5TH Marines as the Motor Transport Officer and Platoon Commander.  In 2009, she was the first female to be deployed with an infantry battalion.  May 2009-Jan 2010 1stLt Smith was deployed with 1ST Battalion 5TH Marines to Helmand Provence Afghanistan, Operation Kanjar. 

After returning from her deployments she became the Executive Officer of Truck Bravo in 2010.  June 2010 she was frocked to Captain and was assigned as the Company Commander of Truck Company Alpha.  In May 2011 she was selected to be the Battalions Operations Officers for HQBN, 1ST Marine Division.  She finished her tour in 2011 at which time she was selected to attend Combined Captains Career Course Joint School in Fort Lee, VA. 

Graduating with honors and the top physical fitness award, she was selected for the billet of Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  While at the Naval Academy she was a Professor for the Leadership Ethics and Law division and Coach for the Women’s Rugby Team.  

Capt Smith is currently with NICoE at Ft. Belvoir and resides at the Fisher House while receiving treatment for serve complex PTSD, Moderate TBI.  She is learning how to adjust to using mostly her right side do to a stroke and seizures that have caused loss of mobility and strength due to injuries sustained in combat.  Her goal is to one day be a mother who can do all the little things again someday with her kids, that we take for granted. She also wants to give back to others that have given so much to her during her recovery.  For she will never forget where she came from and will forever be blessed to those who give so much. Capt Smith doesn’t know what she would do without PHWFF.  It has given her a spark of new life and fills her heart with strength.  The people have become her family just like the Marine Corps. Capt Smith has found her motivation for healing through fly-fishing, poetry, painting, and most of all her support at home and service dog Shian.

She would like to thank all who give there time to helping wounded warriors like herself.  You make an immeasurable difference in our lives and often make the most unbearable days far more manageable.

Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen

Army National Guard | Iraq

Brian was born and raised in Ottawa, Illinois and lived there until going to college.  He joined the Illinois Army National Guard at age 20 and served nine years, obtaining the rank of Staff Sergeant (E-6) and functioning as a squad leader in a short range air defense company, supporting a mechanized infantry brigade combat team.  He was deployed with the First Infantry Division to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in October 2003 and served in an infantry role there for 15 months.  Upon returning home, he moved to Chicago, finished college, and married his beautiful wife, Nina.  He worked as a pharmacy manager for five years before moving to Colorado.

Brian was introduced to Project Healing Waters from the Vet Center in Colorado Springs.  He was able to participate in the beginner and intermediate fly tying classes over the winter of 2013.  The program gave him a hobby which he became incredibly passionate about.  Since then, he has become focused on giving back by spreading his enthusiasm for the organization.  He chose to help his fellow veterans and Wounded Warriors by volunteering as the Veteran Committee Chairman for Colorado Springs, CO. 

Project Healing Waters introduced a pastime into Brian’s life which was used as an effective tool to help him cope with the struggles of living with PTSD.  PHWFF is something he sincerely loves being involved with, a hobby to share with his family, but it also helps him get out of the house and interact with others. 

Thanks to Project Healing Waters’ fly tying class, his volunteer commitment, and the rod building class, Brian actively seeks out opportunities to engage with fellow wounded veterans, which is far from the Brian who came home from war.  Since receiving the gift PHWFF offers, he is calmer and more confident.  His wife says she has not seen him so focused and excited about something since returning home from Iraq.  He is incredibly grateful for having been given such amazing opportunities.    

Fire Controlman Second Class Andrew Laffey

Andrew was born in Plainfield, New Jersey and grew up in the small town of Martinsville, New Jersey. He enlisted in the United State Navy at the New York Naval Shipyard in March, 2010 after graduating from The College of New Jersey. Trained as a Fire Controlman, Andy served onboard the USS SAN JACINTO (CG-56) as a five inch gun and Harpoon Missile technician and operator. He’s currently stationed at the Norfolk Ship Support Activity and an active member of the Portsmouth VA Naval Medical Center Chapter where he was introduced to Project Healing Waters through the Navy’s Wounded Warrior Safe Harbor program. Not only does Andy make sure he participates in every chapter event he can make but he’s already encouraged his shipmates and coworkers to try fly fishing and participate in the chapter’s activities. His enthusiasm and gratitude are absolutely infectious.

Andy’s fondest fly fishing memory is fishing the deep, cold lakes of Maine with his Father, trolling streamer flies for Landlocked Salmon and Brook Trout in the 1937 Old Town Square Stern canoe they restored from the ground up. The boat has been in Andy’s family for three generations.

When asked what he’s most proud of in his life, his answer comes quickly and firmly: His Naval service to the United States of America, protecting the freedom that makes our country the best in the world.

Besides his love of fishing and anything outdoors, Andy enjoys “spending time with my beautiful wife Melissa”. “She has stood by my side and always been extremely supportive through all the challenges I’ve faced in my military career. I’m blessed to have her.”

Staff Sergeant Chris Matthews

USMC  |  Afghanistan

Staff Sergeant Matthews was born on 1 June 1979 in Anchorage, AK  and lived in multiple states along the West Coast. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 1998 from Eugene, OR and arrived at MCRD San Diego July 1998.

Following School of Infantry, he was assigned to 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in December 1998. During this tour, Staff Sergeant Matthews served as Rifleman, Automatic Rifleman, Scout Swimmer, Fire Team Leader, Squad Leader, and participated in various exercises. He also deployed twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Anaconda.

In November 2002, Staff Sergeant Matthews was transferred to G3 Training, MCAS Miramar, San Diego, CA, where he served as a Coach and PMI on the Rifle and Pistol Ranges. Staff Sergeant Matthews subsequently reported to Recruiting Station Seattle, WA, in October 2004 where he served initially as a Recruiter and later as a Recruiting Sub-Station SNCOIC. At his time on Recruiting Staff Sergeant Matthews received awards for Rookie Recruiter of the year and Recruiter of the Year for 12th Marine District.

Ordered to MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA, in January 2008, Staff Sergeant Matthews served as Platoon Sergeant, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. Staff Sergeant Matthews deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the 31st Marine expeditionary Unit during his time at 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. During Staff Sergeant Matthews deployment to Afghanistan he was struck by four I.E.D. blasts resulting in T.B.I and suffers from short term and long term memory loss. Following the 31st MEU he volunteered and was assigned to Military Police Company, 1st Marine Division, as a Platoon Sergeant to stand up and train a Ground Combat Element for deployment to Bahrain.

Staff Sergeant Matthews currently serves as Company Gunnery Sergeant, Marksmanship Training Company, Weapons Training Battalion, Quantico, VA.

Specialist Kyle Pletzke

US Army | Afghanistan

I was born in Rockford, Michigan on July 22, 1991. I graduated high school in June of 2009. I took 1 year to decide what to do with my future. After much time to think I followed my dream of becoming a member of the military. I left for basic training October of 2010 and completed US Army infantry school in February of 2011 both of which took place at Ft Benning GA. I was then assigned to 3RD infantry division 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team 2nd battalion 7th infantry regiment B company. I was instructed on being a 240B gunner. After 7 months I was moved to HHC where I became the driver and personal security detail for the battalion XO. After showing an exponential amount of interest in my old job as a 240b gunner I was then assigned to A co another line company who I later deployed with in October of 2012 to Helmand province Afghanistan. On December 30 2012 we were returning from a mission and our driver lost control of the vehicle, I was ejected and then crushed by the vehicle rolling back onto me and breaking my pelvis and causing injury to my ankle and nerves in my right leg. I had surgery at camp bastion in Afghanistan and was then transported to the ICU in Landsthul Germany for one week until I was eventually brought to Walter reed where I spent 74 days in in-patient. I have now been at Walter reed for a total of 16 months.

I grew up in Michigan where I loved to river fish for trout and Fish lake Michigan for salmon and steelhead. Project healing waters has given me a whole new outlook on the way I fish and how to truly enjoy the little things while constantly challenging yourself to be better and learn more about the amazing sport of fly fishing.

Corporal Mike Escarcida

USMC | Vietnam

My name is Michael J. Escarcida and I am a Vietnam disabled veteran. My military service consisted of a tour with Mike Co, Third Battalion 4th Marines in Viet Nam from 1967 to 1968. While there I sustained several life threatening injuries and was evacuated to Japan because of the injuries and was then medivacted to Balboa Hospital at Camp Pendleton California. When I recovered from my injuries, I finished my tour of duty at Camp Pendleton, and then was released from service.  Because of these injuries, particularly the traumatic brain injury, I have suffered from severe PTSD and am 100% disabled.

Project Healing Waters has been a Godsend for me and my family. I had become an agoraphobic and had some very extreme anger issues. This has always been a burden, not only to me but for my family as well. When I first heard of this project I was a little reluctant to get involved, but when I did reach out, I found the respite I did not know was possible. Here I found others who could empathize and relate to what I had gone through and what I was going through. We shared stories, both good and ba,d and experienced a camaraderie that I did not know was possible.

Our fishing trips have been fantastic, not only for the recreational value, but for the peace that this program has brought me. While I still suffer from the residual effects of my injuries, I can now be a better husband, father and grandfather. I no longer experience extreme anxiety when I venture out and can relate to other individuals without wanting to lash out at them at minute infractions.

Sergeant Justin Burdette

US Army | Iraq & Afghanistan

Justin was born in Gallipolis, OH on August 27, 1986. He and his family lived in Point Pleasant, WV until he was two years old and they moved to Palm Bay, FL. Justin graduated from Palm Bay High School in 2005 and joined the Army nine months later. After completing basic and advanced training at Fort Benning, GA, Justin was stationed at Fort Stewart, GA with the 3rd Infantry Division. In October 2007, Justin deployed for the first time to Iraq. He served a 15 month tour near Baghdad. Upon returning, he married his wife, Beth. Shortly after getting married, he was transferred to Vilseck, Germany to be part of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. While stationed in Germany, Justin and Beth gave birth to their son, Corey. In June 2010, Justin was deployed for a section time – this time to Afghanistan. He served a 12 month tour in the Zabul province. After returning from his second deployment, Justin was transferred back to Fort Stewart.

In February 2013, Justin deployed for a third time and was sent to Wardak province of Afghanistan. Three months into the deployment on June 9, 2013, Justin and his platoon were on a dismounted patrol on a mountain when they received incoming. Justin was hit with a 107 rocket. The blast caused him to lose both legs below the knees. Within a week, he was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD where he is still receiving outpatient treatment. Since being released from the inpatient side, Justin has enjoyed getting back into his hobbies in an adapted form. He has been able to go golfing, fishing, hunting and shooting his compound bow all from a wheelchair. He is looking forward to his legs healing to the point where he can start learning to walk again on new legs.

Sergeant Major Jeremy Bruns

US Army | Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq & Afghanistan

Jeremy joined the Army in May of 1991. His first twelve years in the Army he was in the Airborne Infantry as a heavy weapons/anti-armor infantryman. The last ten years he has been with United States Special Operations Command as a Civil Affairs Soldier. He deployed to Bosnia 1995-96, Kosovo 1997, Macedonia 2001, Liberia 2003, Iraq 2004-5/2006/2007, Qatar 2008-09, and Afghanistan 2011-12.

Jeremy was injured November of 2012. He was struck by an intoxicated driver speeding and on the wrong side of the road. Jeremy was about to load his fishing kayak in the back of his truck when the drunk driver struck him and continue for another 60-80 feet pinning him between the two vehicles. He was medevac’d to Duke Hospital for his initial surgeries and eventually was moved to Walter Reed where he currently is an outpatient in rehab. He is a double above the knee amputee and a partial hand amputee on the right side.   

Jeremy has always been an avid fisherman. Growing up in Minnesota he targeted walleye and northern pike. Stationed in North Carolina he switched to bass and crappie. Fly-fishing was an activity he picked up post injury through Project Healing Waters. A new challenge that he enjoys immensely.

Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert

Army National Guard | Iraq

Kevin was born and raised in Kansas City Missouri. He joined the Army at the age of 20. He spent 4 years in the Army stationed at Ft. Hood Texas. He then spent the next 6 years in the Army Reserve where he obtained the rank of Staff Sargent. After a 10 year break in service, he joined the National Guard at the age of 41. He was then deployed to Baghdad Iraq 8 months later. After a yearlong tour, Kevin spent the next 3 years receiving, and recovering for operations. 

Kevin had always had a love for fishing but had lost all interest in the things he used to do when he was medically retired from the service back in 2009. Kevin vividly recalls when he was introduced to Project Healing Waters. He was at the Kansas City Boat Sport and Travel Show in 2013 where he was attending and met Bob Barnett . Mr Barnett told Kevin about PHW and how it was a way of helping wounded veterans engage and enjoy fly fishing. 

Kevin immediately fell in love with the program. It has given him a passion that he had lost since returning from Iraq. From the time of his retirement back in 2009 till 2013, Kevin had all but given up hopes of enjoying the things he used to do. PHWFF has given him a way of coping with his PTSD. He starts most every morning tying flies, or heading to the local pond and streams to fly fish. PHW has been a life saver for Kevin.  

Kevin also placed FIRST in the First Annual Project Healing Waters Fly Tying contest.

Staff Sergeant Bill Bingham

Army Reserves | Afghanistan

SSG William E. Bingham, Jr was born in Crailsheim, Germany February 13, 1954.  His father was retired from the U.S. Army and settled his family in Blackstone, VA where William lived until he joined the U.S. Army in 1972.  He travelled all over the world and remained in the U.S. Army until 1986 and then joined the Army Reserves after retiring.  He has served in the U.S. Army Reserves and is still serving in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Eustis,

Virginia having been injured when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.  

William has always been an avid fisherman and has always wanted to learn to fly fish. It was while serving in the Warrior Transition Unit that William became involved with Project Healing Waters and learned to fly fish.  He has enjoyed many hours of tying flies and fly fishing with Project Healing Waters and has become an accomplished fly fisherman

Corporal (ret.) Jake Blizzard

USMC | Gulf War

Jake was born  in Pennsylvania and raised in Delaware and lived there until entering the United States Marine Corps in 1990.  Jake served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. He started as a Tank Mechanic, Tank Retriever, and ending up as Tank Driver obtaining the rank of Corporal (E-4) and functioning as a Section Head. After the opening battle operations of Operation Desert Storm Jake was assigned to 1st and 2nd Marine Division retrieving enemy and friendly vehicles. During this assignment, Jake’s camp was hit at night by an Iraq Scud missile.Gas alarms when off from NBC vehicles, Jake was thrown twelve feet thru the air and MOP gear was donned. Years later Jake was diagnosed with TBI, PTSD and chemical exposure from this event. After eighteen months this assignment Jake returned to Camp Leujuene. During PT exercises Jake severely broke his arm and was medically discharged. The Scud missile injuries were discovered at later medical examination. Jake has been receiving treatment for these injuries to this day. As many wounded warriors are, he is not comfortable revisiting combat events. Jake is married to his wife Cherrie for twenty three years who has been very supportive of Jake and other veterans. Jake has two beautiful children, Torrye and Maddy, and granddaughter Aubriella.

Jake was introduced to Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing by Joshua Williams. Joshua was incidentally a prior participant in this event where Joshua’s flies became part of the Orvis line to this day. It would be safe to assume that “Josh’s White Lightning” may be present at this event again. I would check Jake’s fly box. Joshua and Jake’s current Program Lead have a challenge in keeping up with Jake’s passion for all things fly fishing! As well as does the many fine volunteers from the Salem VAMC Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing introduced a passion into Jake’s life which is used as an effective tool to help him cope with the daily struggles of living with PTSD. Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing activities provide a “goal” to get back in life following many past surgeries. 

Says Jake’s Program Lead: “Jake is a blessing to this Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program. He is a gifted learner and gifted teacher in all that we do. Jake built his first fly rod recently, this program’s first fly rod and is helping another wounded warrior build his first fly rod. On an outing last October Jake caught his first ever trout that morning…by midday Jake had set his rod down to help another warrior catch her first ever trout, using techniques he learned just a few hours earlier. Much of the success this program currently enjoys is due in no small part to Jake’s big heart and mentoring way”. 

Specialist Robert Busch

US Army | Afghanistan

I had been in the Navy for five and a half years and now currently almost four years in the Army. I’m an 11B in the US Infantry and it’s something that I’m very proud of. I went to Afghanistan in Feb 2013 and work with Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) along with Special Forces. Our main mission was to help take out the Taliban. If we weren't doing our own missions then we were doing security for Combat Engineers when they were doing their route clearance or quick response force for everyone in our sector.  Along with all the other things we had to take care of as a light infantry unit, we also did the security for our Forward Operating Base (FOB) Airborne which was overseeing highway one and two.

On 06July2013 when I was in charge of check point two which is used to check the Afghanistan people who come by foot or vehicle as well as to make sure anyone else who goes through our check point are allowed to leave or get on our FOB. While I was talking to the bomb dog handlers a 107 rocket hit 10 feet from me. I was lucky because it hit head level at a barrier so most of the shrapnel missed me. Unfortunately, the blast itself did more damage.  Immediately, I got my soldier to a bunker and then made sure the dog handlers and translator were with us. I then called it up on my radio and at this point I thought I was okay but then lost conciseness and found myself in Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, MD.

I ended up with a sever Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), nerve damage and I’m partially blind in my left eye. 

Now because of all these problems, wounded warriors like myself, really need a healthy distraction from the problems we are dealing with.  One of those is Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF). I was lucky to have my old Sergeant, who as well as myself got hurt in Afghanistan, was going fishing with PHWFF.  He told me all about it and I just had to try it out.  PHWFF is a great program for us because it teaches everything that is involved in fly fishing as well as provides the gear needed to do the sport that we have grown to love. I hope that more wounded and disabled military service members and veterans will take this chance to fly fish with PHWFF!


About Us

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.

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