Healing Heroes

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Healing Heroes

Engagement in the outdoors can make a difference in the lives of returning military veterans.

by David Sikes, Caller-Times, Corpus Christi, TX

GreatNonprofits.org lists about 500 U.S. organizations that serve those who have served in the military.

I’m sure there are many more, each with a different style of easing America’s heroes back into a normal life, helping the heal or assisting the in myriad other ways. And, of course, all of these groups share a common and important goal. They strive to extend gratitute to young men and women who endured what most of us cannot imagine.

Some organization specialize in helping soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who lost one or more limbs. Others concentrate on anyone who saw combat. So many of the organizations take on the special challenge of trying to heal the invisible and pervasive wounds left by combat or caused by the uncertain possibility of being called into harm’s way.

Many folks believe this is the most insidious casualty of war. they’re mostly referring to veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems to be worse for returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As many as one in three combat veterans suffer painful symptoms that include flashbacks, avoidance, isolation and hyper-arousal reactions, which can manifest into anger outbursts. This can lead to broken marriages, job loss, loneliness, homelessness, addiction and suicide.

Studies show engagement in the outdoors, even the simple pleasure of paddling a kayak, can make a difference by steering potential victims away from the edge. This is the therapeutic focus of Heroes on the Water, according to Travis Matthews, who coordinates the Coastal Bend Chapter of Heroes on teh Water. He’s a tireless volunteer.

While statistics on the number of veterans who commit suicide are debatable, no one disputes suicide is preventable. The one sure way to realize an unfortunate outcome is to let an individual deal with their demons alone.

This is emblazoned on the mind of Matthews. In November, through Facebook, he learned about the suicide of a young marine with a local connection. Online he also met the fallen Marine’s best friend from combat.

Recruitment of military vets into programs such as Heroes on the Water runs the gamut. Some learn about the programs through the military or through medical outlets, while others advertise or rely on word-of-mouth.

Matthews somewhat inadvertently used a different tactic after learning of the suicide. He reached out to the friend and invited him fishing.

The friend – I’ll refer to him as Red – grew up in a military home and served nine months in Iraq. He has a loving family, but they are far from Corpus Christi.

Red declined Matthew’s unexpected offer to take him fishing. But he considered it. He had fished as a kid, but hadn’t been in a while. Since Iraq, Red said he’s lost interest in a lot of things he once enjoyed.

At the time, life was gray, job prospects were poor and generally Red lacked direction. He suffers no visible war wounds and has no Purple Heart to justify this debilitating malaise. And then suicide stole his best friend.

At the funeral, Red met Matthews, who was not necessarily there representing Heroes on the Water. He said the desire to provide moral support drove him to the Coastal Bend Stat Veterans Cemetery that day. He visits regularly now.

Insisted may be too strong a word. But eventually that’s the term Red used to describe Matthews’ repeated offers to take him kayak fishing. Matthews has never worn a military uniform, but he’s been around enough men who have to recognize the signs of need.

Red had no fishing gear and no clue what he was doing on that plastic boat. But St. Charles Bay on that calm December day turned his life around. This combat veteran marine ranks that day on the water as one of three or four life-changing events.

He did not catch a single fish that day. But he has since then.CoastalBend Mar 2014-HOW2 Slow Ride servicesCoastalBend Mar 2014-HOW2 Slow Ride services

Red pauses often when he speaks of this course-altering sequence of events. The words don’t come easy. Now he goes fishing at least once a month with fellow service veterans, mostly Marines, and folks who genuinely care. One of the gifted Red with a new kayak.

“(Heroes on the Water) made me realize there’s still some good things out there,” Red told me. “Now I have a reason to get out of the house/”

And just to prove good things beget good things, Red recently received another life-changing gift, this one with big brown eyes.

It’s a military issue medical service pup. Red’s new battle buddy is a 65-pound wire-haired pointing griffon to help relieve the anxiety. His name is Redford. They’re in training now. No word yet on whether the pup enjoys kayak fishing. But I’m sure Matthews has invited him.

Similar organizations focus on so many different outdoor activities because no single program or activity fits the needs, tastes, capabilities or likes of everyone who could benefit from this type of therapy.

Heroes on the Water was founded on the premise of simplicity. Kayak fishing is affordable, easily mastered and available anywhere water is accessible. And it can be a lifetime sport.

Matthews said kayak fishing is less intimidating than mountain climbing or even hunting and less of a time commitment compared with hiking or camping. Plus, who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with fishing?

Emerald Insight, a clearing house that publishes peer-reviewed research that benefits society, cites a conceptual paper that suggests outdoor programs for service members not only improve physiological and psychological health, they reach combat veterans who maybe reluctant for a variety of reasons to seek traditional treatments. Many don’t know they need or could benefit from such nontraditional recreational treatments.

This is the core theory behind Heroes on the Water. There is no stigma, no admission of need and certainly no overtones of pity or prescription. It’s just fishing.

And during last Saturday’s gathering on Ransom Flats in Aransas Pass, it was difficult to know for sure which paddlers were active Coastal Bend group shot - Caller Times Mar 2014duty Marines or reservists and which ones were volunteers. Actually, if you looked closely, the Marines appeared more fit and the volunteers were more comfortable in their kayaks.

Part of the withdrawal form combat is the feeling of isolation from comrade who lived an fought together. That kind of camaraderie is difficult to duplicate in a civilian setting. Heroes on the Water seeks to provide military vets a sense of belonging.

That was easy for Saturday’s group, which was made up of five Marines, all from Charlie Company. That 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division attached to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. Some of these men have seen action overseas, while others are prepared to go if called. All of them have or have had an affiliation with the Refinery Terminal Fire Company. So they know each other. Mattews is a senior captain and the safety and health coordinator for the company.

That these Marines were there on the water is proof this kind of activity fulfills a need. This may not be the only or ultimate solution to the complex and profound scars left by war. But it helps. a 2013 story about Heroes on the Water int he Shoreline newspaper in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C. summed up simply what these organizations see to accomplish.

“When you help Heroes on the Water, you help a veteran. When you help a veteran, you help their family. When you help a veteran and their family, everybody wins. Our nation’s heroes need and deserve an opportunity to heal and recover, an opportunity to be free.”

Now let’s talk about ways we can help. Of course you can volunteer or donate gear. But thanks to the generosity of donors, the Coastal Bend Chapter of Heroes on the Water already has more kayaks than Matthews’ garage can hold. They urgently need a secure storage facility, preferably one convenient to to Flour Bluff or the Southside.

Surely, we can afford these guys some space.

David Sikes’ Outdoor columns run Thursday and Sunday. Contact David at 886-3616 or sikesd@caller.com. Twitter: @DavidOutdoors

View short video: Chapter Coordinator Travis Matthews talks about the organization’s method and goal from Ransom Flats in Aransas Pass.

Visit Coastal Bend Heroes on the Water, or email: Travis Matthews

Copyright 2014 Heroes On The Water