Frank Aguilar, First Sergeant (RET) Army spent 25 years serving our country. He endured two deployments to Iraq, two deployments to Afghanistan, survived mortar rounds although injured with a traumatic brain injury and shrapnel to his face and neck, and still decided to stay with his company and finish his deployment.
Frank has a level of dedication and focus on service that positively reflects on everything he does and everyone around him. He does not see it that way.
“As a company first sergeant, I had a lot of responsibility and had to be very strict,” says Frank.
“I had to bring soldiers home to their families.”
Like many who served in our military, Frank recognizes that it can be difficult to help others understand what a soldier endures, and how stressful reintegration can be.
“For 25 years I was up at 6:30 AM saluting the flag,” says Frank. “Coming home was hard. My muscle memory was used to being in formation. Without that structure, my anxiety was high, and my body literally shook.”
When Frank retired, he moved to a suburb of Killeen. He had been bass fishing for years and enjoyed kayaking with his son. Knowing he needed something to help him transition, he did an internet search for his favorite activities, and found Heroes on the Water.
“At the time, HOW did not have a central Texas chapter. Living so close to Fort Hood I felt like the area would be a good place for one,” says Frank. “I found some individuals to help me, and we started the volunteer chapter in Fort Hood in 2015.”
As a servant leader, Frank soon became the chapter coordinator, a position he held for the next seven years. He and his volunteer team built a very successful chapter, providing no-cost kayak fishing experiences to hundreds of veterans, first responders and their families.
“The volunteer program gives our heroes a way to decompress and enjoy time with family and friends,” says Frank. “Getting out on the water is relaxing, and kayak fishing helps them focus in the moment.”
The therapeutic nature of the outdoors enhances and improves the ability for our heroes and families to heal. Because HOW provides recurring events, that wellness gets “locked in” so they can continue to improve.
Most of the Volunteer Program participants are already out of service, learning to enjoy life. HOW actually got our start at Brooke Army Medical Center, so making the decision to expand and create a separate but aligned program that focused more on the Therapeutic Program side simply made sense.
Trekking to the Next Level
Frank, ready for his next servant leader position, stepped up to become the Therapeutic Program Coordinator for III Corps. The Therapeutic Program serves our military who are in treatment either with the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense. III Corps works directly with the Fort Hood Soldier Recovery Unit to provide kayak fishing as a treatment modality.
“With the Volunteer Program, most are out of the service and have had some time to adjust,” says Frank. “The Therapeutic Program participants are focused on transitioning out or going back to the force and are in that program due to an injury. It is a different mindset.”
While both programs utilize kayak fishing as the primary modality, the Therapeutic Program works directly with a recreational therapist or coordinator. At III Corps, the soldiers get to select what programs they wish to participate in with the assistance of the therapeutic coordinator.
“The soldiers are in different levels of their treatment. We pull them out of their comfort zone in a positive way, and expose them to the outdoors,” says Frank.
The Therapeutic Program participants and the recreational therapists find the HOW programs valuable.
“We have program participants often asking about volunteer programs,” says Frank. “It is beneficial to provide them with a way to continue healing through kayak fishing.”
Reaching the Summit
Frank’s experience provides a unique perspective, as he has seen both sides of the program.
“Many participants come in soft spoken, unsure about talking to somebody about their career, their situation, their transition,” says Frank. “Once they are out on the water, or even fishing from the bank, they find common ground.”
“The events lead to friendships, a camaraderie where they can fish together, attend events together, event choose to volunteer together.”
Frank knows that whether it is the Volunteer or Therapeutic Program, the participants find a new mission, a new focus that leads to improved mental and physical well-being.
“It becomes a way of life. Without this we would be losing veterans,” says Frank.
Heroes on the Water is fortunate to have volunteers like Frank and the team at Fort Hood / III Corps. The program does not have restrictions based on years in service, when served, or physicality. That makes HOW more accessible to many who need the healing power of the outdoors.
“It’s my therapy. Whether it is seeing participants out there, either while in treatment or at a volunteer event with their families, just seeing their joy becomes my therapy,” says Frank.
Creating a system that supports our heroes going from a treatment facility to a volunteer event ensures that Heroes on the Water can provide services for the long run. Outdoor therapy, particularly kayak fishing, is proven to alleviate anxiety, improve confidence and positively impact relationships among our participants.
If you want to make a long-term impact in the lives of our veterans, first responders and their families, join the Honor Circle today!