Jim Dolan, founder of Heroes on the Water, was both surprised and elated that he and a group of friends were able to turn their hobby into a life-saving organization. Born from the idea that kayak fishing provides freedom to our veterans with physical injuries, Jim soon realized that there was a lot more going on. Through their work with Brooke Army Medical Centre, the team discovered that the real injuries are invisible, and that this simple program had a major impact on those injuries.
“We were at Blanco State Park and one of our participants was suffering with traumatic brain injury. He didn’t want to get on the water at first, but after a bit decided it might be OK. Once out there, he napped at first, showing just how relaxing this really is. Then he paddled around, caught some rainbow trout, and came back on shore two hours later. That was when things became really interesting.”
The young man had been at BAMC for two years, working through various therapies to treat his traumatic brain injury (TBI) symptoms. A major symptom was he had developed a stutter.
“He got out of that kayak and started talking about what a great time he had, how many fish he caught. It took about 20 to 30 seconds before we all realized he was no longer stuttering,” says Dolan. “The stutter returned, but it boosted him in a major way. He told us he had been at BAMC for two years without any progress. He said, ‘Now I have hope.’”
It was that moment that Jim realized just how effective kayak fishing is, and that they needed to provide a way for more veterans to have access to this program. With the help of an attorney, Jim set up a 501(C)3 and articles of incorporation. People in the kayak fishing community heard about Heroes on the Water and began reaching out to start their own chapters. That grassroots initiative is what helped the organization grow to serve veterans outside of BAMC.
“Once they relax and get to hang out with folks who have the bloody t-shirt like they have, the veterans start to heal themselves and each other,” says Dolan. “That is what many miss – the camaraderie.”
The Impact of Independence
When Jim reflects on HOW’s history, there are too many impactful stories to list. There are a couple that stand out because they showcase the foundation of the organization. One is that of HOW’s most recent area coordinator, Jason Austin. (To hear Jason’s story click here or for a longer version click here)
“When I first heard Jason’s story I was like holy crap! His story shows how effective the program is and helped me understand how we are saving lives,” says Dolan. “His story really drives home how important it is to reach out, get these men and woman off the couch and back into something where they have a level of independence and camaraderie.”
Another moment that helped structure the foundation of HOW was when one of the wives whose husband was receiving support at BAMC approached Jim with a powerful question.
“She said I love what BAMC and HOW are doing for my husband, but what about us? The wives and family members? The veterans were receiving lots of therapy and perks, getting to go on trips and to professional athletic events. The families were not included. This lady pointed out how important families are to the overall healing process, and frankly they serve too.”
Jim knew then that HOW had to include families as part of the program, which was only six months in after the official launch. It is often a family member who brings a veteran or first responder to a HOW event, so including them in the kayak fishing experience is crucial to healing the participant and the family unit as a whole.
“Taking care of the families was something we did very early on. I realized there’s a whole group of people that need help beyond the vets. What we are doing can make the family whole again,“ says Jim.
It’s Not Sorrow – It’s Service
Jim was part of a BAMC outing when he first realized that any disability that could be overcome.
“The therapist was bringing eight veterans, so we had set up eight kayaks. I was prepared to help them get from wheelchairs into the kayaks. Before I knew it, there were eight guys sitting in kayaks, seven were bi-lateral amputees.’
“I looked at the wheelchair I was pushing, and then at the guys said, ‘guess you don’t need this?’ They said, ‘hell no, we are ready to go fishing.’ I realized then that mindset was critical, and we could support their healing through a simple, therapeutic kayak fishing outing.
“Being in service to those who have paid a big sacrifice for our freedom and way of life is easy. There’s no feeling sorry for anyone, no coddling of folks. Just a bunch of like-minded people gathering to do something that gives them independence, often for the first time in months or years, and allowing them to heal through eco-therapy and camaraderie,” says Jim.
Find out where Heroes on the Water is today in our next installment of Operation “Double Dip.”
HOW has thousands of volunteers, both military and civilian, who believe in creating an environment of healing and hope. As Jim puts it, “we are a bunch of people getting out, enjoying life and becoming a tribe.” Heroes on the Water served over 9,000 veterans, first responders and their families in 2018. Our organization gives each man, woman and child a safe place to relax and reconnect. Please consider donating to Heroes on the Water – Operation Double Dip will allow us to expand our presence to serve those who have given so much. When you think about giving, think about double dipping. If you are thinking $10, then double dip to $20. Make $50 double dip to $100. Help us reach our goal of $25,000 to serve the many veterans and first responders living in our area.