Heroes on the Water in service for those who have served
On a warm Tuesday afternoon, four yellow kayaks tranquilly rocked on top of the almost-still water of a 10-acre private lake in Farmersville.
Darting minnows and lush aquatic plants were clearly visible in the crystalline water. Every now and then, a mud hen splashed lightly or a turtle’s head popped up above the surface of the water, looked around, and sank back down. The only sounds came from doves cooing in the surrounding trees, blackbirds darting in the reeds around the lake, and the occasional barking of dogs from nearby farms.
Each kayaker smoothly cast out a fishing line, then slowly reeled the hook in. Every now and then a large-mouth bass came up at the end of the line. A moment later, the fish was released, once again swimming free, and the fishing line was cast out again. If no fish were forthcoming, the kayaker dipped the oars into the water and glided quietly to another area of the lake.
This outing is one of many offered by Heroes on the Water (HOW), an outgrowth of Kayak Anglers Society of America. The San Antonio-based HOW was created to “serve all military personnel who have been wounded, injured or disabled while serving on active duty, in the reserves or National Guard.” The equipment necessary for these outings is provided at no charge to the participants.
Earlier in the day, HOW volunteer/fund-raiser and Army veteran Jason Foshea had been out on the lake with HOW’s national director Jim Dolan and his wife Sally. No sooner had Jason loaded up his kayak and headed back to town when Robert, a retired Marine who returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq with injuries, and his neighbor Roger, also a retired Marine, arrived to kayak fish with Jim and Sally.
This was Robert’s second HOW activity and he was anxious to introduce Roger to the sport of kayak fishing as well. Within a few minutes of their arrival, both had loaded up their gear, climbed on the sit-on-top kayaks Jim had brought and headed out to the other end of the lake. Within moments, Jim and Sally joined them and an easy serenity settled over the area.
A Love of Water
The Dolan family has lived in Allen since 1989. A 737 international captain with American Airlines, flying primarily to Central America and the Caribbean, Jim previously served thirteen years in the U.S. Air Force, graduating from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Sally is a dental assistant working in Richardson. Their son, Justin, recently became a lawyer, and daughter, Kate, is an accounting major at the University of North Texas.
Born in Houston and raised in San Marcos, Jim points out, “I’ve been a fisherman since I was two years old. We did a lot of camping when I was a kid, and it was a natural outgrowth of being outdoors. I lived on the San Marcos River and learned how to fish, swim and scuba dive there.”
As an adult, Jim expanded his fishing opportunities. “I’ve fished in Argentina and Mexico, and I did a little fishing in the Philippines and Japan when I was stationed for five years at Clark Air Force Base, about 50 miles north of Manila,” he declares.
Despite his diverse angling experience, kayak fishing is a relatively new sport for Jim. His first time was in the spring of 2006. The initial draw of the sport was that the kayak allowed him the opportunity to do shallow water fishing along the coastline. “You are fishing with a lure on top of the water—we call it ‘walking the dog.’ All the action is right on top of the water; you see everything happening because the water is so shallow,” Jim explains. “It will get your heart racing big time. We are catching redfish that are two to three feet long in water that is six to eight inches deep, which is cool.”
“And kayaking is so relaxing,” he continues. “You see all kinds of fish, crabs, stingrays, shells and birds. And you get some amazing pictures out of kayaks.”
Sally joined Jim with this water sport in 2007. “I thought it looked interesting and it was something we could do together,” she notes. And the proof that she enjoys kayak fishing? “I will now take my own fish off the hook,” Sally grins.
Like her husband, Sally’s first kayaking experience was along the Texas coast. “Someday I would love to paddle the Gulf Coast all the way from Texas to Florida,” she declares. “I think it would be incredibly beautiful.”
Another aspect of kayaking that appeals to Sally is its simplicity. “It is so easy,” she stresses. “If you can hold a paddle, you can kayak. And I think they are easier to steer than a canoe.”
Sally also enjoys participating with Jim in the HOW events. When her job allows, she accompanies her husband to as many of the outings as possible.
A Splash of History
Although kayaking and kayak fishing are fast-growing sports today, they are also evidence of the old adage of “what was once old becomes new again.”
Many people today view kayaking as a white water sport, with the boater carefully maneuvering the craft through rushing river currents. But archaeologists now report that kayaks were used for hunting over 4,000 years ago in the arctic regions of North America, Greenland and Asia. These early boats were made from driftwood that washed ashore in these lands without trees. Sealskin covered the framework and seal bladders filled with air provided the necessary buoyancy.
When the Europeans discovered the benefits of the kayak, the boat began to take on its sporting persona, booming by the mid-1800s. In the late 1920s, Captain Franz Romer sailed and paddled a kayak from Lisbon, Portugal, to the Virgin Islands, braving two hurricanes along the way. The 1936 Summer Games in Berlin hosted the first kayak racing in the Olympics, with white water and slalom events added later.
Today’s kayaks are very different from their arctic predecessors. They now come in different materials, shapes and styles, all designed with where and how the boat will be used in mind. Many fishing kayaks are constructed of molded polyethylene with compartments for equipment, and the length is usually determined by whether the boats will be used for marine or fresh water fishing. Boaters also have an option of a sit-in or a sit-on-top design.
Exploring New Angles of Helping
As one of its organizers, Jim has been involved with the non-profit organization Kayak Anglers of America and its related Heroes on the Water program since day one. KASA started in September of 2007 with Kendal Larson, Danny Paschal and Jim. HOW was established the following month. Currently Jim serves as treasurer of KASA and national coordinator for HOW.
“Our original concept was to bring kayak fishing inland,” he explains. “We had a lot of ideas of what we wanted to do—paddling trails, launch points to launch kayaks into rivers and lakes, kayak fishing certification and Heroes on the Water. All three of us who started it were vets.”
The stated primary goal of Heroes on the Water is “to assist those injured service members with their physical and mental recovery by introducing them to the therapeutic qualities of fishing from kayaks.”
“I think what we do is highly beneficial for the post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury guys,” Jim emphasizes. “I would like it to be an official therapy for the military.”
Jim recognizes the benefits extend much further than just the physical activity involved in kayaking. “I want the soldiers to become kayak fisherman and join our band of brothers. Kayak fishermen tend to want to help more folks learn the sport. It is a real family-oriented sport and these guys deserve anything we can do for them.”
Drawing on his own years of military experience, Jim explains, “There is a band of brothers in the military. Even though I rarely see them, my military friends are my life-long friends. [HOW] gives these servicemen another band of brothers. When they are overseas, the band of brothers lives and dies together. So when something dramatic happens, they go back to their units and tents, and everyone knows and they all trust one another.” Jim then explains that when service personnel who have serviced in combat areas return home and find they need to process their combat experiences, there is often no one nearby who can serve as an understanding support system. “We give them that band of brothers again,” he concludes. “We want these guys to feel comfortable enough to relax and talk.”
This belief in the benefits kayak fishing offers injured servicemen and women is not simply a theoretical stance for Jim. He has personally witnessed remarkable feats and strides forward from participants in the HOW program.
Jim grins as he recounts the time one of the HOW kayakers came back to shore after a successful day of fishing, and the young man’s commanding officer noted “That’s the first time I’ve see that kid smile in six months!” Jim then shrugs. “We did not cure that kid, but we put a crack in the shell. We gave him something to talk about and he knew he could go forward and push on. It was one of those moments when we knew this was a good thing we were doing.”
Another experience that Jim refers to as an “Aha! moment” was witnessed when an injured soldier with brain damage and related speech impairment who refused to talk was taken out on a kayak fishing trek. “When he came out, he was talking normal—talking about what his fishing experiences were like.”
Jim explains, “When we put some-body in a boat, they are responsible, they are in charge. They don’t have to think about anything else. So you see the shoulders drop and their change in attitude is incredible.”
Others quickly recognized the benefits of the Heroes on the Water program as well and new chapters immediately sprang up around the state.
The first HOW program started with soldiers at Brook Army Medical Center, a major medical trauma center in San Antonio. Shortly after this, Darnall Army Hospital at Ft. Hood near Killeen added a chapter. Other chapters for the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, Central Texas Veteran Administration System, and the West Texas Veteran Administration System followed.
Because of the growing interest in the project and its demonstrated success, HOW applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to purchase equipment. “We bought two trailers, 40 kayaks and associated paddles, personal floatation devices and fishing equipment with this,” Jim boasts.
This equipment is limited for use in the state of Texas. And with HOW now expanding beyond state borders, addition-al funding is now being applied for.
In June, HOW hosted four first-time events with new chapters associated with military medical facilities in other states: Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon in Georgia, Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia, Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis in Washington, and the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. With the success of these events, HOW has served well over 100 injured servicemen and women and veterans.
Jim explains that each of these programs was sponsored by local HOW chapter volunteers that were primarily created from “local kayak fishing clubs/associations/on-line forums.” He and Sally had the opportunity to participate in the recent Georgia event as observers. “They ran it all,” Jim emphasizes. “We just happened to have the weekend off and wanted to go see a part of Georgia we haven’t seen.”
This success is not slowing the organization down. Plans are now underway to set up additional chapters in Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Tampa/St. Petersburgh, Florida; Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania; and Houston. Jim does not find this drive forward to be a particularly daunting task because he has no shortage of volunteers. He estimates that HOW currently has over 150 active kayakers who have already participated in HOW outings and hundreds more who have expressed an interest in helping out.
Jim is also finding that as the group’s popularity grows, so does the military’s demand for their services. And this demand is one significant hurdle that has taken some effort to achieve. “Getting the military to trust us was a huge thing, and we have accomplished that,” he notes. “The next thing is to get to the guys who have already been discharged. They are hard to find, so it is hard to get our information to them. It is a networking problem.”
Another need for HOW is fishing/kayaking locations. “Mostly what we do is farm ponds. I don’t want to have to worry about powerboats and wind. And it is easier to relax in a small location, plus the fishing is usually better.” Jim also points out that these smaller sites are safer since the majority of their clientele are new kayakers. “The command and control are a lot easier when you are on a small pond,” he notes.
Always mindful of safety, Jim emphasizes that HOW has two non-negotiable rules—there is no alcohol at any HOW outing and everyone on the water is required to wear a personal flotation device. He also grins as he admits, “I go out there expecting to help them, and generally, they help me more than I help them. Being with them is an amazing experience.”
Jim laughs about the time a new group of injured servicemen, including several double amputees, arrived at their first HOW event in a military van. The first thing Jim did was leap forward to unload the wheelchairs so the men could get to the kayaks. To his amazement, before he had finished getting the wheelchairs off the van, every serviceman was already seated in a kayak, ready to go. Each had been motivated by a desire to get out on the lake and go fishing.
Proponents propel HOW forward
Robert, one of the fishing kayakers that afternoon in the Farmersville lake, is one of numerous HOW advocates whose praise is based on personal experience.
Married and the father of a three-year-old daughter, Robert served five years in the Marine Corps until his forced retirement because of injuries. During his first tour of duty, he served as a combat engineer with a scout team during the Iraq invasion. On his second tour, he was an engineer squad leader stationed at Ar Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar Province in central Iraq. It was here, in 2004, that he took a couple of bullets in a firefight. One of these destroyed his right foot.
Although the foot was saved, Robert states that all the bones are fused and arthritis has begun to set in. Because of this, he is considering having the foot removed.
Robert admits that dealing with both the physical and emotional trauma of war has taken a toll on him. “I experienced quite a bit of post-traumatic stress when I retired. The transition was very hard for me,” he explains. Because of this, he moved his family to a rural area of the Philippines, his wife’s native country, for six months. “But after enough San Miguel and Red Horse Beers, I decided I had my whole life ahead of me. I was 32 at the time.”
Robert chose to then relocate his family to the Dallas area, at the urging of his mother who also lives in North Texas. He is now actively engaged in doing the “groundwork” to establish a United States Veterans Chamber of Commerce and hopes that this national group will be launched soon, starting primarily with Dallas-Fort Worth businesses and moving to other states as growth allows.
“I became active with the Metroplex Marine Coordinating Council, an informal group of Marines that gather at a steak house once a month,” he continues. “That is where I met Jim, and he shared with me what he was doing.”
After three kayak-fishing outings with Jim, Robert is an enthusiastic and very vocal supporter of HOW.
“I have boat fished and kayaked. When I first met Jim was when I put fishing and kayaking together. It was a perfect fit,” Robert declares. “One of the biggest benefits is I get to do something relaxing that is activity-related with other veterans.”
Robert also acknowledges that HOW’s benefits extend farther than offering camaraderie to past and present military servicemen and women. “I’ve been to lots of therapists and gotten pretty good help, but none have espoused the therapeutic value of kayak fishing or being out in nature,” he explains. “We are able to clear our minds and do what we enjoy. Reconciling the experience in Iraq requires a lot of open space. I’ve gotten some of the most effective therapy from getting out on the water and I really appreciate being able to do it.”
For additional information on the Heroes on the Water program and upcoming events, go to their web site www.Heroesonthewater.org.
Peggy Helmick-Richardson is a freelance writer.