Kayaking group helps veterans ease into civilian life
By Ken Jackson
When Tom Welgos returned from two tours in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, which came after 20 years of service, he faced the daunting task of going from an active military member to a civilian.
He left the service in 2005, but not until a little more than a year ago when checking out a program intended for veterans like himself did he finally feel at peace.
That program, Heroes on the Water, which brings those veterans who return from service with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) or physical disabilities together through fishing and kayaking activities that help them relax, rehabilitate, and reintegrate.
Welgos, whose military service included stints in the 82nd Airborne Division, 3rd and 5th Special Forces Groups, the U.S. Army Parachute Team and Special Operations Command, began the Osceola chapter of Heroes on the Water, which also brings in veterans from Orange, Polk and Brevard counties.
“I went into it a little skeptical wondering if I’d be able to relate,” he said. “But wounded veterans need that support system to regain what they’ve lost. It’s hard for a veteran to explain to a civilian what happened to them. And some are never able to fully become a civilian again.”
Welgos, said HOW, which is a free program for the veterans and is completely reliant on donations, fills a vital need for the 55,000 disabled veterans who will return from Afghanistan. He said Florida is home to the third-most veterans behind California and Texas.
“We’re creating a community of veterans,” he said.
The local chapter held its first event of the year, a kayaking and fishing event at Twin Oaks Conservation Area east of Lake Tohopekaliga on Saturday morning. Cool weather held back the attendance a bit, but Welgos expects bigger crowds for events later in the year, including overnight excursions to Melbourne and to the Twin Oaks Conservation Area. The next scheduled event is Feb. 1 on Lake Jackson in the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area near Kenansville. That regular monthly schedule is important to helping veterans get back on their civilian feet, even though they are sitting down in the kayaks, which also is vital to their rehabilitation, as is the quiet intimacy that nature and the middle of a tranquil lake provides.
“By meeting once a month it gives them something to look forward to and plan ahead for, which is something guys with PTSD need,” Welgos said. “In the kayak, you propel yourself, and then you fish, and the physical action of that is better for rehab than just standing on a boat or a dock and fishing.”
HOW, which began in Texas in 2007, now has 40 chapters nationwide and is open to all veterans and their caregivers. While a battle injury is not required, Welgos said every veteran he has signed up has one, or some version of PTSD or TBI. He calls it an outdoor alternative to American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts.
Welgos, who runs Veterans Bass, a fishing guide service, has used his professional contacts to get equipment donations, which HOW relies on to get the veterans out on the water. Locally, a St. Cloud veteran and a group of St. Cloud firefighters have donated kayaks, and Welgos said he recently sold some unused fishing equipment to buy 10 more. But more is needed to be able to expand the program.
“One kayak can help us help 14 servicemen over the course of the year,” he said.