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Finding healing: Veterans embrace the peace and quiet of fishing at Lake Lehow

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By Deborah Swearingen

Reflections paint the still waters of Lake Lehow as those scattered across its banks cast their lines, hoping for a bite.

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Cast. Reel. Catch. Release.

With each launch of the fishing line on the shore of this secluded lake, they find stillness and clarity. But perhaps most of all, they find healing.

These individuals have much more in common than shared space in the sand. Most also share the experience of war; they know service and honor, fear and pain. Through this understanding of combat and love for the outdoors, the group has become family.

Just One Day

Just One Day is a nonprofit organization started nine years ago by Marine Corps veteran DJ Williams of Lone Tree. It aims to take veterans and active military personnel on one-day fishing trips to help them bond, relax and assimilate back into civilian life. During the warm summer months, the group meets at Lake Lehow, a private lake in Littleton adjacent to Waterton Canyon, but members also take trips to other bodies of water across the state.

Williams hopes the group will provide an outlet for those in need of a helping hand.

“As far as the military goes, you have a tight group of camaraderie, and the fishing industry is also that way,” he said. “But not only that, it’s getting out and being back with people who were in (the military), too.

“It eases your mind,” Williams added. “Nature’s a pretty powerful thing.”

The back story

While on duty in the early ‘90s, Williams was in a helicopter accident. He continues to have surgeries to help ease his pain and correct the damage.

A series of surgeries in 2004 left him bedridden for months, but a fishing pole enticed him out of his house and into the fresh Colorado air. He recalls days spent walking the paths and fishing the lakes of downtown Denver’s Washington Park.

It wasn’t always easy, but Williams pushed himself to carry on. Get outside for “just one day,” he would say. And thus, the idea for Just One Day was born.

“I realized how good it was for me, and I kind of figured it would be good for others,” he said.

Together with his wife, Annette, he began working toward a new goal: organizing a nonprofit that would allow veterans to fish together. It didn’t take long for the idea to come to fruition, and DJ said he began to work with Fort Carson’s Wounded Transition Battalion to bring veterans on board.

The planning process gave Williams direction that didn’t go unrecognized by Annette.

“It gave my husband a purpose, and he was struggling at the time,” she said. “I just kind of look at it as a second opportunity.”

A love of fishing

On a warm morning in late August, more than a dozen veterans and their family members gather at Lake Lehow.

The group has its own private spot. Many gather near each other, cracking jokes and comparing catches. But others, like Ed Logan of Littleton, prefer to find a quiet spot on the far end of the lake. With a hat on and his hands on a fishing pole, the Army veteran casts a line into the water.

When Logan is fishing, he forgets the world.

“The only thing that exists is you and the fish,” he said with a smile.

Jerry Schmisek, also an Army veteran, travels over an hour from Fountain to fish with Just One Day, and he, too, found a secluded piece of shore to try his luck in the water.

“It’s just a nice, quiet spot,” Schmisek said. “It’s incredibly relaxing. I’m just happy to be throwing and cranking.”

And a mutual understanding

Ask any veteran and they’re likely to tell you how tough it can be to explain what war is like to someone who hasn’t been through it.

That’s a lot of the reason why there is an inexplicable bond between those who “get it.”

“Veterans, really, truly are kind of like spouses,” Williams said. “They’re the only ones that are going to understand you.”

Williams considers himself lucky to have a family who understands, too.

“My whole family knows that I can’t go shopping after November for Christmas shopping ‘cause I can’t do crowds,” he said. “Understanding those deals, you can understand a veteran.”

Shawn Buckendahl, a Navy veteran and president of the nonprofit, echoed this sentiment, saying Just One Day provides the perfect escape.

“It gives you an outlet to talk about things that the majority of the population just wouldn’t understand,” he said. “… They understand the stresses that you go through. I’m still living with a lot of it.”

For years, at the end of a fun-filled day of fishing, attendees leave messages of gratitude for Just One Day.

The words that fill the weathered book speak volumes to those not yet aware of Just One Day’s impact. But for those who do, the messages simply reinforce what they already know.

Sometimes an understanding ear and a fishing pole can make a world of difference.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.