Visually Impaired Veteran Builds Fly Rod - VA Black Hills Health Care System
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VA Black Hills Health Care System


Visually Impaired Veteran Builds Fly Rod

Veteran holding a fly rod

Bill Classon holds his custom fly rod

By Teresa Forbes
Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Challenges Won’t Stop this Marine Veteran’s Healing Journey

The process of healing takes many paths for Veterans using VA Black Hills Health Care System. William (Bill) Classon, a proud combat Marine Veteran, recently completed a six-month journey to find healing through the therapeutic process of fly rod building.

After months creating a custom fly rod, in November 2018, Bill applied the final coats of epoxy and completed his first fly fishing rod. The rod became a Christmas gift for his son who is also a Marine Corps Veteran.  Prominently featured on the finished rod are two very important symbols of his military service; the Marine Corps and POW/MIA seals.  Bill hopes his son will enjoy fishing with the new rod and appreciate what its completion represents.  Military service crosses five generations in his family from his grandfather to granddaughter, from WWI to current deployments protecting our nation. He has committed that his next rod will be for his granddaughter, an Army Veteran. 

Bill was in the Marine Corps for seven years serving a tour in Vietnam as a sniper. Years later he came to the VA for treatment and healing from PTSD.  His therapist encouraged him to get involved in rod building through Project Healing Waters, one of the art therapy groups at VA Black Hills Health Care System, as a helpful extension of his treatment program.  During the weekly sessions, Veterans work at tables covered in a variety of supplies.  While they work, Vietnam Era Veterans alongside Korean War, Gulf War and OEF/OIF/OND Veterans discuss day to day things but also share stories of their time in the military and current struggles.

Military service unites them, but there is one thing that sets Bill apart from the other Veterans sitting around the table. In 2007, Graves’ Disease claimed Bill’s eyesight. After Bill lost his vision, it was the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center (CBRC), a 34-bed residential facility at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Illinois, that pulled him through. He credits the people and program there with teaching him the skills needed to live a more independent life.  He’s looking forward to a return trip this winter to refresh some of those skills and learn to use a computer. 

His visual impairment presented an early challenge for the precision work required but it didn’t stop him. Bill relates that the detailed nature of rod building is teaching him anger management, cognitive thinking skills, and humility. Bill admits that he will get up and walk away when he needs to take a break.  But that’s all a part of the skill building process. “Don’t let your challenges defeat you”, he said.

Bill is the first visually impaired Veteran to finish a fly rod through the VA Black Hills program. The Veterans around him in the rod building group are clearly inspired by his attitude.  His disability has not limited his ability to overcome adversity.  He relied on his memory of building rods years ago in the Boy Scouts, recalling what the various parts looked like, how it felt to wrap the thread around the rod and knowing where the different pieces needed to go.

VA Black Hills offers several art therapy groups for Veterans. Along with rod building, Veterans tie fly’s, and use leatherwork as an outlet for healing and recovery. Project Healing Waters supports VA’s program by providing supplies and expert volunteers to assist Veterans – even take them fishing in the beautiful streams of western South Dakota. 

Bill admits he may never be done with the program. In the meantime, he continues his recovery work while inspiring fellow Veterans with his “never quit” Marine Corps attitude.


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