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Healing Our Heroes

by Susannah Wollman

Finding heroes might seem like a daunting task today, but in reality, it isn’t. All you have to do is look at our armed forces veterans and our first responders. (It occurred to me recently that only the human animal will voluntarily run into a burning building.) Our veterans have fought for our freedom so that we can live life free from domination and subjugation, and our first responders have appeared as if by magic when tragedy and chaos ensues.

But they aren’t the only heroes in our lives. The families of veterans and first responders are heroes in their own rights. They are the ones who sit at home when their loved ones are in the line of danger. They are the ones who hold the fort and who raise the funds and who cheer the troops. Without their help, we would have far fewer heroes who take care of us.

Heroes get tired

It’s a hard row to hoe when you are military. And sometimes it’s even harder when you return home. Most of our veterans make the transition back into civilian life with few difficulties, but a significant number (44%) of Iran and Afghanistan war veterans say they have had difficulties readjusting to life off the battlefield. Even those who have not suffered overly still are tired. They need time—and not just a week or two—to recover and regain their pre-service lives.

The mental health needs of first responders—those who are charged with protecting the people’s health and preserving a community’s population—has also increased in the last 3 years. Largely due to the pandemic, they have also had to cope with a host of other social ingressions and discord.

Clearly, achieving physical and mental wellness is critical for veterans and first responders alike.

Rescuing heroes

The problem is complex. So how do we achieve wellness for our heroes? Both veterans and first responders are high-risk groups when it comes to depression and suicide. Lookin at what has been successful is key to helping our heroes find wellness.

The University of Michigan conducted a study that resulted in the fact that participation in outdoor recreation was good medicine and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agrees.

Jason Duvall, one of the researchers involved in the study, said: “The findings suggest that extended group-based nature recreation can have significant positive impacts on veterans struggling with serious health problems.” The same holds true for first responders.

Letting nature work

There are several easy and cost-free ways to let the great outdoors heal emotional and psychological wounds. Hiking, cycling, yoga, and mountain climbing are among them. But we found a place that may work even better.

Heroes on the Water

There are chapters of Heroes on the Water all across the United States, with eleven of them in Texas alone. According to their website, “HOW empowers heroes to decompress and reconnect with themselves and their families while becoming part of a lifelong community.”

Heroes on the Water, a 501(c)3 non-profit, provides recreational wellness experiences to veterans, active service, and first responders alike. Primarily through kayak fishing, programs incorporate structured activities that have proven cognitive and emotional benefits. The environment is pressure-free, and the activities foster community building and personal healing. At HOW, participants find camaraderie and support they so desperately need.

Dedicated volunteers organize events that are cost-free to participants and their families. All equipment is supplied and no prior experience is necessary.

HOW programs are highly effective in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, increasing healing of traumatic brain injury, and improving overall well-being for participants. The goal of Heroes on the Water is “to provide heroes with a way to positively improve their lives, enhance their family dynamic and impact their community in a healthy and lasting way.”

How it works

The wellness therapy of HOW’s kayak fishing is successful in helping overcome the symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. It provides a peaceful, adaptive way to help with balance and confidence and, equally importantly, it provides camaraderie and supports peer-to-peer therapy.

Volunteer-led groups schedule regular weekly and bi-weekly events. The coordinator of each chapter is a contractor who collaborates for a full season with the location’s therapist.

A success story

“I had to bring soldiers home to their families,” says Frank Aguilar, First Sergeant (RET) Army, of Kileen, Texas. He felt his responsibility to the families of his men deeply. During his service to the country for 25 years, Frank endured two deployments to Iraq, two to Afghanistan, and despite a traumatic brain injury from mortar round and shrapnel to his face and neck, he stayed on with his company and finished his deployment.

“For 25 years I was up at 6:30 AM saluting the flag,” says Frank. “Coming home was hard. My muscle memory was used to being in formation. Without that structure, my anxiety was high, and my body literally shook.”

After retirement, Frank knew he needed something to help with transition back into civilian life. An avid bass fisherman who enjoyed kayaking with his son, Frank searched the internet for his favorite activities. What he found was Heroes on the Water.

At first look he knew the opportunities offered by HOW would be therapeutic. “At the time, HOW did not have a central Texas chapter. Living so close to Fort Hood I felt like the area would be a good place for one,” says Frank. “I found some individuals to help me, and we started the volunteer chapter in Fort Hood in 2015.” Eventually, Frank became a coordinator for Heroes on the Water.

“Many participants come in soft spoken, unsure about talking to somebody about their career, their situation, their transition,” says Frank. “Once they are out on the water, or even fishing from the bank, they find common ground.”

Frank, used to leading, was the ideal volunteer. He began as a servant leader, became the chapter coordinator for seven years, and then stepped up to become the Therapeutic Program Coordinator for III Corps. The Therapeutic Program serves our military who are in treatment either with the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense. III Corps works directly with the Fort Hood Soldier Recovery Unit to provide kayak fishing as a treatment modality. His unique perspective that makes him such a valuable volunteer comes from being on both sides of the program.

“It’s my therapy. Whether it is seeing participants out there, either while in treatment or at a volunteer event with their families, just seeing their joy becomes my therapy,” says Frank.

You can help

Therapeutic Programs are always looking for volunteers who have one or more of the following skills:

  • Kayaking
  • Fishing
  • Outdoor experience
  • Photography
  • Social Media Management
  • Adaptive Sports experience
  • Administrative