Heroes on the Water is an active 501(c)3 veterans charity founded in 2007, focused on providing healing experiences to veterans, first responders, and their families.
Ray Queen comes from a family that has served our country and community for decades. His grandfather was in WW II, his cousin was in the Army, and his mother was a dispatcher for the police, just to name a few. As he puts it, he grew up in camouflage.
“GI Joe was my hero. The only thing I ever wanted to do was serve my country,” says Ray.
9-11 simply solidified for Ray that his desire to be in the military was something that had to happen. He remembers vividly the details of that day. What is particularly noble is Ray’s thoughts on why he had to enlist, particularly his ideals of how he had to give part of his life to service to be a real American citizen. Check out the video clip to hear it in his own words.
War is Hell
Ray calls it the truest statement he’s ever heard. Through a series of events, Ray ended up in Iraq with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, deployed to Iraq. He says like many who join the military, or even think about what the military is like, he expected fire fights every day. While this was a reality, along with regular bombings, it was something else that caught Ray off guard.
“It’s hard to explain to someone who has never seen battle, and it’s hard to imagine what it’s like in a foreign country,” says Ray. “Baghdad was a city of 4 million people in a small area. Think of Phoenix, except having been shelled a few times. There are people living there who did not want to kill us. They just wanted to get on with their lives. Then there were those people who did want to kill us, and sometimes it was hard to discern the difference.”
Ray and his unit spent many missions outside the wire, living with the Iraqi police, not showering for days, carrying 85 pounds of gear on 18-hour missions in 130-degree heat. He also spent his 21st birthday there, an experience most people do not have.
“I was on a long mission as the gunner, and was blown up. It’s a birthday I’ll never forget.”
There are many reasons that service in the military is difficult, including the challenges many have with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. However, even with all of the trials and tribulations that come with serving your country, there is one thing that Ray says makes it worthwhile – the brotherhood. Check out his powerful statements:
Ray’s experience in finding and recreating that brotherhood outside the military has been difficult. The closest he’s come is his relationship with his wife, who he knows would do anything for him and vice versa.
“There is something life-changing about filling out a will when you are 18 or 19-years old. Plus, you know that there is a large possibility that the people you leave with won’t return. It changes things.”
The Long Trip Home
Ray’s exit from his military career, like many, was unexpected. After discussing reenlisting with retention officers on several occasions, they came to the conclusion that the five traumatic brain injuries coupled with post-traumatic stress were too much to allow him to continue his enlistment. Ray opted to go into the national guard, which allowed him to stay connected to the military while giving him time to figure out what was going on with his health.
“I realized after a couple of years with the guard that my life in the military was over,” says Ray. “I was having a lot of challenges, only sleeping 2 to 3 hours per night, having nightmares, suffering from hallucinations, and then finding out I was having issues with my muscles where they would suddenly seize up.”
Recognizing at the age of 22 Ray would not be able to physically do the things he had done before, that his body was betraying him in a way that he could not trust himself to carry out his duties, he had to switch gears.
“Not only could I not finish my military career, I was not able to complete my heavy diesel mechanic training,” says Ray. “Six months from graduating as a mechanic, I had to walk away.”
This is a lot of loss for anyone to process, so it makes sense that Ray went into a downward spiral. Fortunately, he had family to provide some relief.
“My brother-in-law, who was also in the military, decided to take me fishing. I wasn’t all that into it, having not been since I was a kid, but he talked me into going,” says Ray. “For some reason, it helped calm me down.”
After four months of fishing, Ray’s wife said he needed to do more. He decided to go to school to study psychology, something the VA did not see as the right move. Ray was going to school via a new program around locational rehabilitation. Therefore, the VA had to approve his major. They felt psychology was not the right move. When he suggested photography, which they were fine with as long as he took 9 hours of aptitude tests.
“After 9 hours, the test results stated I should be a photographer,” says Ray.
Photography did not pan out for Ray, as much like his previous experiences, he had struggles, but this time more in the shape of creative differences with his instructors. In switching schools, he did find something that not only interested him, but was able to help feed his soul. In the video below, you can hear Ray talk about the dichotomy to glass, and how it really drew him in.
It’s a Long Road for the Family Too
“I don’t envy what my wife has been through at all. When I was in Iraq, we were dating and there were many days when I was outside wire and we could not speak,” says Ray. “If a soldier was injured or killed, it would black out the base, taking down all the comms. That ensured that family would not be notified by any other means. It also meant if we were in the middle of conversation, I would go dark for 3 days. That was hell.”
Ray recognizes that in spite of how much his family wanted to help, there was little his wife or parents could do to help him upon his return. And he realizes now how difficult watching him suffer through was for his wife, parents and children.
“My wife could not do anything but watch me go through a difficult time, waking up in the middle of the night, suffering through days where I did not want to be touched or spoken to. My children did not understand anything except I was angry or too depressed to get out of bed.”
It was Ray’s wife that convinced him to seek help from the VA, not an easy task.
“For the first year I refused to get help, refused to believe I was affected. The VA was for guys that had limbs blown off, which was not me,” says Ray. “Finally, I was able to admit there was something going on, but did not want to admit there was a problem, which is admitting to a weakness.”
“As a soldier and infantryman, you did not admit to weakness. You just soldier on.”
Ray’s children had to work through their own challenges while Ray worked through his, not an easy task for a young person.
“My daughter and I would try to talk things out, but in the end we would go fishing,” says Ray. “She’s a little prissy, so doesn’t like to bait hooks or take off the fish. But the fishing itself, that was how we would cope and get through our own challenges together.”
Ray’s son was into video games, and also interested in what Ray went through in Iraq.
“I kept telling him when he got older I would be able to share more, but for the time being we would discuss the video game and how it was or was not realistic,” says Ray. “That became our way of dealing with it.”
As time went on, Ray became stronger, turning his passion for glass blowing into a full-time job as an art teacher, and expanding his family.
“We fostered two children that we have now adopted. Sam, who is a feisty kid who just did not know how to express himself, so he would scream. I knew how he felt. Today he’s a brilliant child that is very smart and well-spoken.”
“Our little girl was only 5 days old when we got her. She was so tiny she almost fit completely in the palm of my hand, so there was concern about her growth. Today she is still small for her age, but a very happy child who makes me realize how to be happy as well,” says Ray. “None of this would have been possible if I had not had a supportive family, and found alternative therapies, like glass blowing and fishing.”
Therapy – More Than a Conversation
Ray knows that therapy in the more traditional sense did not work for him – a common thread we’ve seen for many years.
“I actually found out about Heroes on the Water from a social worker at the VA. My wife mentioned I enjoyed fishing,” says Ray. “I gave them a call and went out.”
When Ray first learned he was going out on a kayak, he had concerns.
“I’d never seen a fishing kayak, and I’m 6’6” so was not sure they had a kayak that would work.”
Ray loved his first HOW experience because it was simple and no pressure.
“I went out to several outings, during one where I met the founder of HOW, Jim Dolan. He’s always been an interesting guy,” says Ray. “No matter how many times I went out, no one asked questions. They just wanted me to go fishing.”
Ray was able to open up more, and feel more comfortable. He realized that through telling his story, he could help others understand what he went through, and how other veterans could benefit from a HOW experience.
“Heroes on the Water is not about patching anybody up – not about fixing anything. It’s about fishing and the fellowship – just being able to go out on the water and forget about everything, says Ray. “After we came home from active duty service, we lost that. Deployment was always on our mind so getting the break a few hours every month talking to other guys those things went away. You don’t even notice it’s happening.”
Ray wanted people to really understand the power of Heroes on the Water’s kayak fishing experiences, so he summed it up this way:
It took me a while to realize it wasn’t just fishing, but time to step away from all the other nonsense and allow my mind to heal – to not dwell on that place. To just give it time to recuperate.”
“HOW isn’t about trying to make money off anybody. The whole point is putting a veteran in a kayak with a fishing rod and giving him the chance to be a normal person no matter what has happened. You have no idea how powerful that is. It’s something that no traditional therapy can give you.”
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today – teacher, foster parent, parent, husband – if it wasn’t for this organization. I will honestly say that fishing and HOW saved my life. They changed everything about my life for the better.”