Heroes On the Water

This issue of The Milkcrate is dedicated to an organization held dear by many within the sport, and one the exemplifies the altruistic and giving nature of kayak anglers. At its core, the mission of Heroes On the Water is simple – take veterans kayak fishing. It is possible, however, to extrapolate from Jim Dolan’s group a much deeper meaning. Countless lives have been touched, and a new form of therapy has been brought into the public light. Superlative accolades and effusive adjectives can be forever thrown at the people of HOW, but this space is better used as an arena in which the etiology and mission of the group is better explained.  There is none more qualified for said elucidation than Mr. Dolan himself.  We were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to join Jim in conversation; the following are excerpts thereof.

You have obviously come to a conclusion shared by many kayak anglers – the sport, even in its fish-less upwind days, can offer to the practitioner a healing, almost meditative experience, and one that speaks to both the body and mind.  However, there sits within you a difference; you have taken this realization and, from the embers of commonality, moved your thoughts into a igniting spark of action.  Tell us about the moment in which you decided to parlay your feelings into the entity that has now become Heroes On the Water.

We all see a kayak as another form of fishing transportation. And then we start getting on the water. A very different experience. I was hit between the eyes with a VERY big “light bulb”  on our fourth outing in 2007, when a soldier who rarely speaks and was mentally slow became completely normal for a few minutes. Saying “After two years, now I have hope.” Doesn’t take a neurologist to understand that. We realized that kayak fishing was much more than a recreational outing.  Little did I know where it was going to go.

In taking a deconstructionist approach, one can dissect the various attributes of a day spent kayak angling into a list of individually therapeutic actions – returning to the aqueous ancient mammalian sea of origin, piloting one’s own vessel in an otherwise uncontrollable environment,  engaging in a compounding form of anticipatory interest whilst hoping that the next big bite is but one cast away.  Add to these an endorphin-laden form of exercise and a solid foundation of positive human interaction, and the sport becomes a multifaceted array of healing and stimulation.  Have you had occasion to believe that any one component holds within it a majority of the healing benefits?  Or, with regard to being a form of therapy, is kayak angling truly a sum of its parts?

I feel kayak fishing is a sum of its parts – plus the people. The trash talking band of brothers that our military brethren are used to. The willingness to help (from volunteers) and the ability to be one with nature. No distractions in a one man ship. Captain of that ship. Responsible for oneself. Able to learn and be successful in 5 minutes. Totally escape and allow nature to wash over them. And still join a group on the water and hang out.  Because the wounded vets trust us, feel relaxed on the water and can forget their troubles, all of those allow the positive impact of water on all five senses to override the bad stuff going on inside. Gives them a very strong powerful memory and feeling. Recapture the freedom they lost.

As awareness of Heroes On the Water grows, so does the pool of potential volunteers.  Paralleling this growth is the ever-increasing pool of newly minted kayak anglers.  Internet forums are rife with beginners wanting to know more about the processes in which they can transfer their new found love into a meaningful way with which to help veterans.  There does seem, however, to exist a bit of hesitation in that anglers lacking experience feel as though they may not have much to offer the organization.  Can you share your thoughts on this phenomenon, and perhaps offer some advice to willing but doubtful kayak anglers?

All Heroes on the Water does is take newbies kayak fishing. Very simple. Most are young studs. Us when we were in our 20’s and 30’s. They require no special care and handling. You’ll find some will become great friends. Best advice I can give is to relax and have fun!!! If someone turtles, help them and treat them like you would anyone. Relax and trust your instincts. Chapters require a ton of work. Networking with all of the VA systems. Setting up logistics of fishing tackle, kayaks, food, etc. Asking in the community for help and donations. Plenty of places for folks with multiple talents to help. Our ultimate goal is to put troops in seats. These folks want you to treat them like family.  We are not a “take a soldier fishing” or “thank you for your service.” We are not doing this to make ourselves feel good and then walk away. We want our vets to become one of us. The best atmosphere we can have is a family picnic. We bring them into our tight knit family and enjoy the day and multiple outings with friends. The best compliment you can get is when a vet calls you and says “Lets go fishing.” Or steps up to run a chapter. We currently have 6 chapters being run by HOW vets.

In the same vein as the above inquiry, some HOW clients have testified that they entered into the experience with a bit of nervousness.  Perhaps the sport was an unknown phenomenon, or perhaps the veteran had a preconceived notion that he/she would be barred entry due to physical or mental challenges.  These testimonies, though, always seem to end with a highlighting of the skill and compassion stemming from the HOW team.  It seems as though you and your volunteers have found innovative and creative ways to accommodate any interested party.  What should potential yet apprehensive clients know about HOW? 

Like most of us, when someone hears “kayak” they think whitewater and Eskimo roll. We are a flat water/ calm water organization. We certainly don’t put any newbie in a situation they can’t handle. We have a short safety and paddling demo. I usually get out and standup in a 9’ yak. They look at me at 6’5” and 280, and see that if an old, fat guy like me can do it, they can too!!! Our Brooke Army Medical Center 10 week program does take them on some small rapids after they get comfortable. And everyone has a ball!  We’ve had a triple amputee do deep water reentry. Very simple sport. The HOW volunteers at the pointy end of the kayak – they do some amazing healing  and work tireless hours. They mainly make the wounded folks feel welcome and comfortable. Invite them into our kayak fishing squad and have fun. Most outdoorsmen like to bring new folks on board. Kayak fisherman do that VERY well. We tend to trash talk and have fun with the group. A very similar atmosphere to what military folks grew up in.

The reach of HOW is ever-widening, and new chapters, including recent additions in the Pacific Northwest, are springing to life with great vigor.  When looking ahead five or ten years into the future, where do you see yourself and HOW? 

I would like to be out of a job. But we will have “customers” for the long term. We hope to build to 100 or more chapters serving 10,000 folks. We feel that will happen in 5 years or less. I personally hope to retire from American Airlines in Sept 2013, and travel around the country meeting people and helping chapters serve more wounded veterans. Spread the word!!! Mainly fish with my wife and mark off fish on my bucket list. Muskie with Dan Dalton in the great Lakes area. Sturgeon with the Portland and Washington State area. Monster reds in Louisiana with Jason Austin and Gairi. Snook with the Florida guys and gals. Maybe take a few folks to other countries.

2 Responses to “Heroes On the Water”

  1. Nice write up and summary Andy. Hopefully, the word will continue to spread!!

    • Tom VanderHeiden says:

      Jim has done a wonderful job of recognizing what kayak fishing has to offer and then applying it to an area that can benefit from it. Always the humble guy, Jim is always pointing the attention away from himself and towards others, a trait that you will find has taken root in every HOW Chapter. A great organization starts and continues with superior leadership.

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