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SRA Kristen Ray Umbehagen

In Heroes on the Water our goal is find peace out on the water. The first day that Kristen Umbehagen came to the Emerald Coast Chapter she had been referred to the Chapter by her commander who knew the benefits HOW bring to the active duty service member dealing with operational and combat stress. Kristen’s job is one of the most stressful in the Air Force, and this was compounded by the lost of two of her closest high school friends in car accidents in the same month.

On her first trip out she had a 30+lb Jack Carville struck her line, hooked on to a freight train of a fish her boat spun around and 10321143_522896561149045_4595969594990235660_oher line began to spool. She could be heard from the beach hooting and hollering. In less than 3 minutes her rod was stripped clean. Her HOW Wingman was able to wrestle a sister fish to the Kayak and handed the fish to Kristen. He was proud of how long she stayed with one of the toughest fish to catch on light tackle. It was after that trip Kristen came in with a smile on her face. She was hooked and loved the way fishing made her feel. It also gave her the strength to ask for help.

My first experience with a HOW event, I didn’t know what to expect. There was no “briefing” only two rules (no alcohol and wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) while in the kayak) those rules were just as much for us, the assistants, as they were for the soldiers. The PFD is a given and soldiers understand the importance of proper gear. Yes this was supposed to be a fun and relaxing outing but safety is number one and not only are there specific requirements for anyone on the water but alcohol just adds an element no one is equipped to deal with at this point in a soldier’s recovery.

Do we ask questions or be careful of what we say… no sudden movements or loud noises? I had questions mostly because I didn’t want to inadvertently do or say something to upset any of the soldiers. I also had concerns… will there be outbursts or fits of rage, crying spells or tense situations? Who will help us if something like that happens? Do we cater to them or let them make mistakes on their own… eating and going to the restroom? I wanted to be prepared but there wasn’t a manual. No hard and fast dos and don’ts, no how-tos just plenty of reassurance that it will be fine and you will figure it out as you go and I did. I’m now writing this for the next person that gets themselves into this wonderful and worthy group, for the person that wants to get involved but isn’t sure if they can handle it or if they are the right person for something like this. Let me just say if you can be a friend then you can do this and it means so much to these brave souls and their brethren.

“One on the guys at this event paddled a canoe back home, but now has no fingers on either hand, wrote HOW volunteer. He said “Tape the paddles to me, I’m going out there one way or another!!!!!!” When he can back in he said, “Best day ever of rehab!!!!” Volunteer Travis Meier realized the amazing determination of our Heroes to overcome challenges to be actively engaged in life again.

Heather Gardner is a recreational therapist at the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center. Her specialty is adaptive sports with ties to the U.S. Paralympics. Gardner defines recreational therapy as a way of distracting one’s mind from the toll the body may be taking on and diverting it to something that is pleasing to the mind, body, soul, or a combination of those aspects.tape hand to paddle1

Gardner is not at all surprised at therapeutic breakthrough anecdotes related to kayak fishing. She’s led several groups on HOW outings. The first involved wounded warriors who were missing both legs above the knees. The majority of those participants said they wanted to fish but not kayak. A few wanted to kayak but not fish.

Within 20 minutes, with no encouragement from anyone, said Gardner, everyone of them was in a kayak with a fishing rod in their hands. How does Gardner assess the therapeutic value of that experience?

“I’m sure it was different for each participant,” she said. “Getting away from the hospital and a daily routine can be therapeutic. Putting them in a boat where they are the sole controller can be therapeutic. Doing an activity that is not physically challenging and entirely in their control can be therapeutic.”

According to Meier, “This last event opened my eyes and you can count on me for up coming HOW events. I didn’t know what to expect but I’m glad I got involved. The conversations I had with these warriors did my heart good. Great bunch of guys and gals in the service!!!!”

HOW brings together volunteers and warriors to kayak fish…all leave with so much more.


The Sarasota/Bradenton Chapter of Heroes on the Water participated in the Veterans Kayak Build held by the Florida Maritime Museum and Legacy of Valor.

Veterans and volunteers gathered together for four days of kayak building and camaraderie. Stay tuned for the inaugural launch of the fleet at the HOW Chapter’s April 26th outing. 

Raul Casas, chapter coordinator recaps the building process:

DAY 1 – From wooden strips to a kayak frame – progress!

Day1-1Day 1-2

2014 started with a bang for the Northeast Florida Chapter. We were joined by 20 vets/guests and 32 volunteers for a fun, relaxing day on the water. The weather was gorgeous — one of those days where you are just sitting in your kayak as the sun burns off the morning chill and heats you up until you’re nice and toasty … and sleepy. Well, at least, until that fish slams your pole and you scramble to blink back your dreamlike state and pull in that big old red fish! That’s exactly what happened to many during our event. Fish after fish were reeled in.

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