“I had a bad week and need to get out on the water.”
“The tough losses are those we endured after we returned. The brothers and sisters we lost to suicide.” Aric Quitugua, chapter coordinator for Heroes on the Water Tampa Bay, saw some of the worst as an Army Medic. He understands the struggles veterans have when they return.
“It’s understandable how someone can lose that battle,” says Aric. “If we can save just one, we have done well. I wish we could save them all.”
Originally from Guam, Aric and his wife were high school sweethearts. It was the birth of their son that made him want to join the Army.
“I wanted to do something that would make my son proud of me. I became a medic because the recruiter made it sound cool,” says Aric.
Aric’s military career took him through airborne school to focusing on orthopedics, and finally to line medic. He was deployed to Iraq twice, where he made good friends, and eventually stationed at Walter Reed.
“I was in charge of orthopedics and rehab and saw many soldiers with traumatic brain injury as well as physical injuries,” says Aric. “It was during that time I found there were alternative programs and became aware of Heroes on the Water.”
Inspired to Act
After his retirement from the Army, Aric and his family moved to Florida. He didn’t know anyone but was able to meet people through peer groups. That is where he came across Heroes on the Water (HOW) again.
“The Tampa chapter was not active. Because I was familiar with the work they did through rehab with outdoors, I pushed to get it going again,” says Aric. “I had already lost five close friends to suicide. I wanted to do something to help veterans get out more and maybe positively impact their lives. HOW seemed like a good fit.”
Aric and his team pushed hard to breathe new life into the Tampa Bay chapter, holding their first event in February of 2017 for Purple Heart recipients at My Warrior’s Place.
“We wanted to give this audience a good feel for who HOW is and how we serve, so we wanted to partner with an existing group who was already doing good work,” says Aric.
Through word of mouth, the Tampa Bay chapter has continued to grow and serve. Comprised of volunteers, many who are combat veterans, the chapter has a strong family feel. In fact, Aric’s volunteer team includes several of his family members like his brother who handles the safety role and a cousin whose son is Aric’s god son. His friend Joe, also from Guam, is the treasurer. His neighbor Kenny volunteers and takes the photographs.
“We wanted it to feel like a small village, where we spend time getting to know our participants,” says Aric. “We keep things small and provide a lot of one on one time with those who reach out. We are here to serve.”
Aric and his team are focused on the continued interaction with the veteran and first-responder community.
“Many times throughout the week I get a call from someone who says I had a bad week and need to get on the water,” says Aric. “One or two of the volunteers will take that person out as soon as possible.”
Recently the team supported a first responder who needed some time on a kayak.
“Mainly it’s just paddling around and enjoying the day. There’s no need to talk. Just find a way to relax and decompress,” says Aric.
Fulfilling the Next Mission
Aric knows that HOW is relatable to the community we serve because the volunteers and leadership team have been there. As with many who have left the military, finding purpose can be difficult. Aric knows that being a part of HOW makes a difference.
“Being an active volunteer or part of the leadership team gives you the drive to keep going,” says Aric. “We are making a positive difference and that helps us stay strong.”
Continuing this new mission serves veterans and first responders as well as their families.
“We had a father and son come out, and the son had never fished before. They caught a fish together. It was an amazing moment.”
Getting people off the couch and out into the world is a major step, and not always easy.
“You can get into this dark room and want to stay there,” says Aric. “We keep inviting them out. Once they come, you can see the difference.”
Aric knows that the program works for the volunteers as well, as they are also motivated to get out of the house and do something outside their comfort zone.
“I’ve participated in many different events, and I know that it’s crucial to find that point where you are relating to one another,” says Aric. “Many of us are fighting the demons of post-traumatic stress and TBI daily. We are here to support that fight and give our community a way to combat it.”
Aric and his leadership team are humble about the work they do while recognizing the critical nature of ensuring that veterans and first responders have a team of battle buddies at their side.
“In the military we are always taught to complete the mission, no matter what,” says Aric. “Helping others is now our new mission.”
Aric is one of many passionate volunteers who found purpose by serving our veterans and first responders. As we approach Veterans Day, please consider honoring this brave community of men and women by donating to Heroes on the Water. Become part of HOW Nation and be in service to those who protect and serve us.