When Stafford County resident Mike Cherwek, M.D., retired from cardiology 10 years ago, he immediately started searching for ways in which he could use his medical career to benefit others.
In addition to teaching cardiology at the University of Virginia, Cherwek started volunteering with nonprofit Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which brings high-quality fly fishing programs to service members at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center returning from combat.
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“I missed a couple meetings and became national vice president,” jokes Cherwek, who founded the Quantico branch of the nonprofit, eventually being nominated to national vice president of the entire organization.
With Project Healing Waters, young soldiers are given the opportunity to learn a new craft, which is beneficial for both physically and mentally injured veterans.
“At first, the young kids at Walter Reed would gravitate toward the younger volunteers,” says Cherwek. “But once it became clear that I was a doctor who could really answer the questions they don’t typically ask, I became much more popular.”
While his work with the nonprofit is rewarding, Cherwek recently decided he wanted to take it a step further after learning that approximately 6,000 veterans committed suicide annually from 2003 to 2009. With the launch of the Fredericksburg Area Military Service Initiative Fund (FAMSI), returning service members will gain access to exclusive, local programming focused on outdoor activities in an effort to benefit the mental health of each participant.
“As an avid fly fisherman, he has guided a lot of groups of servicemen and wanted to see more resources dedicated to this kind of work,” says Lisa Biever, communications director of The Community Foundation, which is working with Cherwek to raise funds for his charitable cause.
Cherwek is in the networking phase of the initiative, currently partnering with local branches of organizations like Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc. and the Izaak Walton League of America to provide veterans with opportunities to hike, run, fish or shoot a bow and arrow, all in nature.
“This area is so military-oriented, and I thought we needed to do more,” says Cherwek. “So I just said we’ve got a lot in Fredericksburg, let’s take advantage of that to transition these soldiers and marines back in the community.”
Cherwek firmly believes spending time in the outdoors with members of the community is an aspect of therapy. Whether it be for an amputee practicing use of one arm or for an individual suffering from PTSD, Cherwek hopes his contribution provides a sense of hope.
“Don’t get me wrong—cardiology is hard, but the majority of the consultation period is convincing them that you know what you are doing and bringing yourself to a communication level full of understanding,” says Cherwek. “The stories are just part of the therapy.”