When Fishing Is About More Than the Fish

A kayak fishing event sponsored by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water. Photo courtesy of the Central Florida Chapter Facebook site.

A kayak fishing event sponsored by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water. Photo courtesy of the Central Florida Chapter Facebook site.

The number of Gulf War era veterans is growing as is the list of non-profit organizations formed to help returning service members.

Heroes on the Water is a top-rated, all-volunteer non-profit organization formed specifically to provide free therapeutic recreation to veterans of all eras, active-duty military and their families.

Florida has seven chapters many of which offer events year round.

  1. Central Florida Chapter
  2. Emerald Coast Chapter
  3. Northeast Florida Chapter
  4. Sarasota/Bradenton Chapter
  5. Space Coast Chapter
  6. South Florida Chapter
  7. Southwest Florida Chapter
Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

Just a week ago, the Central Florida Chapter hosted veterans and their families on Lake Jackson in Osceola County. While chapters like New Jersey’s pack in a large number of fishing trips during the summer months.

The idea behind Heroes on the Water is simple in theory and application. It only requires a kayak, fishing gear and a volunteer fishing coach to get a wounded veteran or stressed-out service member on the water.

“Putting them as close to nature as possible, there’s a tranquil effect,” said Tom Welgos, the Eastern United States operations coordinator for Heroes on the Water.

“I like to use Henry David Thoreau’s comment on fishing that: ‘Men spend their whole life fishing only to find out it wasn’t about the fish.’ And by putting them into a peaceful, outdoor environment, we start to see that stress level drop by allowing them to go out and fish they kind of take their minds off day to day problems.”

Welgos is a veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was actually a fishing guide that offered free trips to wounded service members, but had few takers. He says that’s because fishing tours on a motorboat do provide the peace offered by kayak fishing.

Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.

Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.

The quiet solitude of his first kayak fishing trip was such a revelation for Welgos that he started volunteering for Heroes on the Water.

“The realization was that when we put these guys in kayaks and they have to use their body to power this kayak and are selecting the fishing areas with the help of a coach and they’re determining when they come back in, that we’re actually knocking down the overall stress, avoidance behavior and hyper vigilance,” Welgos said.

Their free outings get injured veterans out of their hospital settings and offer quiet retreats to returning active duty service members. Their events are open to veterans of all eras and as well as their families.

The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.

The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.

He said the organization is all volunteer and many of them have never served in the military. Welgos said that’s the beauty of the program, it gives civilians a chance to give back to those who have served.

“They (civilians) are passionate about this cause because it’s not a fishing club or a kayaking club it is a cause,” Welgos said.

This January, Heroes on the Water will train 35 more volunteer, leadership teams that have already been selected and vetted. Welgos said by late spring, the organization will double in size to 70 chapters across the United States as well as affiliate chapters in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

 

A Way for Student Veterans to Help Their Families

Photo courtesy of the VA

Photo courtesy of the VA

Military service involves more than the person wearing the uniform – families are always a part of that equation.

A team of three University of South Florida psychology doctoral students and a graduate of the School of Social Work are conducting a research study looking at how reintegration affects military veterans and their children.

Their focus looks at how veterans are “reintegrating” to both civilian and academic life and also examines the student veterans’ well-being and that of their children.

The USF Coming Home Project is an anonymous online survey for student veterans who qualify:

  • You must currently be enrolled as a student.
  • You must be a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan.
  • You have children between the ages of 6 and 18.

The online survey only requires about 15-20 minutes and is anonymous. It examines the impact of deployments on children in military families.

Information about the Coming Home Project survey is available here.

No Veteran Left Behind Moves Forward with Smart Bikes

Navy veteran Rob Walker of No Veteran Left Behind shows a video promoting the Smart Bike developed by his organization and teens from the South-side of Chicago.

Navy veteran Rob Walker of No Veteran Left Behind shows a video promoting the Smart Bike developed by his organization and teens from the South-side of Chicago.

Bringing together veterans’ service organizations to share ideas and create networks was one of the goals of The Patterson Foundation’s Veterans Legacy Summit that concluded last weekend in Sarasota.

It brought one veteran to Florida to share how he’s using his mechanical background to inspire kids on Chicago’s South-side.

Rob Walker was a mechanic on a nuclear submarine before he left the Navy and became a lawyer. He’d just finished a big case and was on hiatus when he heard an NPR story by David Schaper in March 2011.

It detailed how the non-profit group, Leave No Veteran Behind, was providing safe passage to high school students on some of Chicago’s more menacing streets.

Two teens on the promotional video working to rebuild a bike.

Two teens on the promotional video working to rebuild a bike.

“I thought, you know what, I’m a Southside vet. I want to make my neighborhood better. I want to be part of the solution,” Walker said. “So, I reached out to them (No Veteran Left Behind) and I started out on a ‘Safe Passage’ route just like everybody else.”

Education is part of the Leave No Veteran Behind initiative as is using each veteran’s assets and training to benefit the community. So eventually, Walker developed a new program.

“Now, we’re doing a program where we’re teaching STEM or we like to call it STEAM where it’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics,” Walker said. “We’re taking these kids and we’re giving them skills they’re not getting from their typical education.”

And Walker’s teaching tool is not typical, but it is plentiful supply.

An instructor shows Chicago teenagers details on bike rebuilding as part of the No Veteran Left Behind Smart Bike Project.

An instructor shows Chicago teenagers details on bike rebuilding as part of the No Veteran Left Behind Smart Bike Project.

“We’re showing them how to take these abandoned, rusty bikes that are still all over our city and turn them back into state of the art machines with brand new componentry(sic),” Walker said.

The Smart Bike design has several high-tech features. One, the NuVinci N360, makes shifting gears as easy as “turning the dial on your stereo.”

It’s also tricked-out with a generator hub that powers an LED headlight and taillight as well as a USB port on the handlebars. So, once the bike is up to speed, you can charge your cell phone.

“While teaching these kids, we often heard they don’t have a place to plug in their cell phones,” Walker said. “So, the kids wanted a place to charge their phones.”

The promotional YouTube video, produced by Walker, touts that they teach more than science. They teach recycling “Southside style” and find potential anywhere.

Walker came to the Veterans Legacy Summit in Florida to network with other veterans’ organizations. He said the Leave No Veteran Behind Smart Bike program could be expanded beyond Chicago. The only drawback is money.

He said it can be expensive. The first Smart Bike cost $4000 to develop. But now that they have the prototype, Walker said the cost should drop by half. He has started a crowd-source campaign and produced the 2-minute YouTube video to promote the program.

The prototype Smart Bike developed by No Veteran Left Behind and South-side teens.

The prototype Smart Bike developed by No Veteran Left Behind and South-side teens.

 

A West Point Band Concert in the Sky

The West Point Band plays on stage at the Saturday national ceremony, Veterans Legacy Summit, at Sarasota National Cemetery.

Why is it that the “behind-the-scenes” stories captivate and entertain us sometimes more than the “real event?”

The West Point Band was a major participant in this weekend’s national celebration of Patriot Plaza at Sarasota National Cemetery. They played during the two-hour Veterans Legacy Summit program Saturday and again on  Sunday in a free concert.

Their music was as artistic and engaging as the artworks and architecture of their venue. And there was toe-tapping and clapping in unison from an entertained audience.

But what many there might not have known is that as the band was flying from New York to Florida, their pilot found out the musicians were aboard. They were then asked and agreed to play for their fellow passengers.

Here’s a YouTube video of that plane ride:

As much as I enjoyed the West Point Band’s music at Patriot Plaza, I love the fact that they shared some of that artistry with fellow travelers.

 

 

Afghanistan Combat Veteran Commemorates Patriot Plaza

wes_moore_croppedSaturday in Sarasota they’re holding the national commemoration of Patriot Plaza. It’s the 2800 seat amphitheater and art installation built to honor veterans and their families at Sarasota National Cemetery.

The keynote speaker for the capstone event is best-selling author Wes Moore – a former paratrooper and veteran of the Afghanistan War.

His book is titled “The Other Wes Moore.” He wrote it after discovering another young man by the same name, from the same city, with a similar background and about the same age. But instead of receiving a Rhodes Scholarship like he did, the other Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for murder.

He wanted to know why their similar lives were so divergent.

“The military for me was a remarkable experience. I grew in the military. It helped to change me, shape me and help me immeasurably,” Moore said. “Some of my fondest memories in my life thus far happened not when I was in a suit, or wearing jeans, but when I was wearing the uniform of the United States of America.”

Curiosity led the decorated combat veteran and White House Fellow to reach out to his Doppelganger. Their correspondence became the backbone for his book. And he said the best way to honor veterans is to do the same thing, reach out and ask about their individual stories.

One of the dozens of photographs depicting U.S. troops on the battlefront and the home front at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery.

“Often times what ends up happening in the fear of saying something incorrect, you end up saying nothing. No conversation takes place but the interpretation in the veterans’ community is that you don’t care,” Moore said.

That’s why he became executive producer of the PBS series “Coming Back with Wes Moore” – to tell some of the stories of struggle and success as wounded veterans work to find a new mission in civilian life.

The three part series, currently being broadcast on WUSF-TV, Channel 16, at 10 p.m. Sundays, shows how some veterans fight through physical pain and emotional setbacks.

“That’s what warriors do,” Moore said in the series. “It is what makes us different.”

And he told WUSF that veterans want to make a difference.

Part of the photographic art installations at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery.

Part of the photographic art installations at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery.

“We believe we have a lot to contribute. We believe that often times people look at the veteran community as if we’re challenges or as if we’re things that have to be solved,” Moore said. “We view ourselves very differently. We really do look at ourselves as assets that need to be leveraged.”

That’s the message that Moore will deliver Saturday at Patriot Plaza. He’s excited about revisiting the artwork there because it triggers an emotional response – that’s different for every individual.

The Patriot Plaza Celebrate Service & Sacrifice ceremony is scheduled at 2 p.m. and includes a speech by Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the West Point Band and Moore. It’s free and open to the public, however, registration is required.

The WUSF Veterans Coming Home project also will be there as part of the Veterans Legacy Summit “Legacy Zone” at Patriot Plaza from 12:30-4:30 p.m. No registration is required. Stop by and see us.

WUSF Veterans Coming Home is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

 

A Belated Veterans Day Message from Overseas

Courtesy USMC

Courtesy USMC

I am sharing a message from one of my favorite Marines (and I know I’m not supposed to have favorites … but). He  is now in the private sector and currently overseas working with a private contractor.

Because he is not in the U.S., it makes his message even more powerful to his fellow Marines and the general public:

I wish all my fellow Veterans a great and safe Veterans Day and may you all take a few minutes to reflect on they days of past and really look at what you have and how if not for those that came before, we may not have those things today.

Every day I see Americans take the freedom they have for granted.

All I ask is for you to take a minute or two to reflect on sacrifices made by those who answer the call to serve. I’ll stand and fight with my fellow warriors so my family, friends, and our way of life will never cease to exist.

Fly those Flags everyday and paint our country in those beautiful colors.

SEMPER FI devil dogs happy belated birthday and to my brothers and sisters in other branches push on and never give up.

I too owe a belated 239th Happy Birthday to the U.S. Marine Corps.

10 Ways to Recognize Veterans’ Day

flag_homeHave you missed the Veterans’ Day parade or the ceremony at your local VA National Cemetery?

Well, there’s still time to show your appreciation for the men and women who have served or are currently serving in the Armed Forces. Here are a few suggestions you can practice year-round:

  1. Fly the American Flag outside your home.
  2. Teach your children or grandchildren a patriotic song like America the Beautiful.
  3. Volunteer at your local VA facility.
  4. Write a letter or make a card to be delivered by Operation Gratitude which sends messages to active-duty deployed troops as well as veterans.
  5. Accompany a veteran on an Honor Flight, or be there to greet the veterans when they return.
  6. Participate in the Veterans History Project – the Library of Congress makes it easy with a step-by-step process.
  7. Visit Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Wall, or any of the other War Memorials or spend a quiet hour at your nearest National Cemetery.
  8. Sponsor a wreath for a veteran’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery for its 150th Anniversary or at your local VA cemetery through Wreaths Across America.
  9. Post a message of appreciation or photo from your Veterans’ Day on the WUSF Veterans Coming Home Welcome Wall.
  10. Check out the Military Avenue link on 101 Ways to Thank a Veteran.

A bonus suggestion: if you live with a veteran like I do, give him or her a hug and make their favorite meal for dinner.

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