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Former USMC Sgt Bill Johnson holds his just-caught trout

Healing Waters- Bill Johnson {format} {format} 3:18 Barrett Golding

Wounded warriers get their wheelchairs wet fly-fishing.

Broadcast: Mar 23 2007 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Project Healing Waters Subjects: Environment, Health, War

Disabled Veteran: 'We Get Where We Need to Go'

March 23, 2007 from Day To Day

JOHN YDSTIE, host: All this week, we’ve brought you stories of injured veterans. They’re part of a group called Project Healing Waters.


Volunteer guides take the veterans fly fishing. It’s part of the healing process. Most of the troops in the program served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

YDSTIE: But the program is open to disabled vets from all conflicts. Retired Marine Sergeant Bill Johnston lost his legs to an explosion during the Vietnam War. He went fishing while waiting for new prosthetic limbs.

(Soundbite of stream)

Retired Sergeant BILL JOHNSTON (United States Marine Corps): I’m just stripping a little line out and side-casting, putting loops in upstream, and that lets the line stay out in the middle of the stream better, and it’s really just a perfect morning. The sun’s out; the fish are hungry.

I was a Marine. I was actually wounded in Vietnam in 1970, had legs issued at that time and learned to walk on those. My first set of legs was as unsophisticated as a door hinge. It had a pin through the knee, and you had to slam it out, pull back on it, or it would buckle and throw you flat on your back, but these new ones are so much easier and energy efficient that you can walk longer and better.

So I was able to contact someone at Walter Reed and get an updated set issued with computer chips in them. It analyzes my step 40 times per second, which is a lot faster than I can think, and if I start to stumble, it senses it and stiffens up the resistance so that you have more time to recover.

It’s pretty amazing. If the knee starts to bend too quickly, it knows it’s not a regular step. It actually almost learns how you walk. They set it, but then it adjusts as you continue to walk on it, and I’ve been going through physical therapy down there with the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

I started some wheelchair basketball for them, and I’m currently working on a rowing program, and Ed Nicholson and Evan Forsyth(ph) have provided this fishing experience for us, and it really - it does help out because they work hard all week at physical therapy, and it’s nice to get out on the weekends and do some of these outdoor activities.

And once they get doing something outdoors and learn they can get through the woods or down to the river, it just changes everything. But I also hunt, and I just go out and cover pretty much wherever I need to go, and when I have to, I just hop through the brush.

Having lost both legs above the knee, I just kind of get down and swing through on all fours. Sometimes I wear pads on the end of my extremities to make it a little easier, in case I would step on a broken bottle or a sharp rock or something like that.

Disabled Sports USA has a motto: If I can do this, I can do anything. Yeah, we get where we need to go, whether it’s on legs, in the chair or on the ground, however it has to happen - in a boat, whatever.

YDSTIE: That’s disabled Vietnam War veteran Bill Johnston. Our series on Project Healing Waters was produced by Barrett Golding of To hear the rest of the series, visit our website,

BRAND: Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

YDSTIE: On Monday, we’ll hear from a man who served in Vietnam, was at that groundbreaking ceremony 25 years ago and now serves in the United States Senate.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): I saw the Vietnam war from the bottom up, as a rifleman.

YDSTIE: Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel is a Republican who questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq and is now convinced the U.S. needs to find a quick way out.

Sen. HAGEL: I fear that there is a gradual incrementalism here, not unlike what we saw in Vietnam, and what we do know from Vietnam is the deeper you get in to a war and the more you escalate that involvement with more troops and more deaths and more commitment and more money, the more difficult it is to get out.

BRAND: Senator Chuck Hagel. Hear him in conversation with another Vietnam veteran, our own Alex Chadwick, on Monday’s DAY TO DAY.