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These beamy kayaks with scuppers are designed for stability. Each is equipped with a tackle box for the day’s fishing, a rod with an overboard float, a kayak floatation vest and a paddle with a tether. Under the canopy, volunteer, Melissa Sealsky, a recreational therapist at Franklin Square Hospital, registers participants and collects releases and any photo restriction requests.
These beamy kayaks with scuppers are designed for stability. Each is equipped with a tackle box for the day’s fishing, a rod with an overboard float, a kayak floatation vest and a paddle with a tether. Under the canopy, volunteer, Melissa Sealsky, a recreational therapist at Franklin Square Hospital, registers participants and collects releases and any photo restriction requests. (Bill May photo)

"Our Mission: To help warriors relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate through kayak fishing and the outdoors."

That's the succinct mission statement of Heroes on the Water (HOW), a national charitable (501c(3)) organization founded in Texas in 2007 that now has 77 chapters in 37 states. The Maryland chapter is based in Carroll County, and there are chapters in York, Pennsylvania and Arlington, Virginia. The program is open to active and retired military personnel but also to "first responders" including police officers, firemen and emergency medical technicians.

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While this is a national organization with strict accounting, guidelines and reporting requirements, it operates with a staff of six paid employees and relies on the largely autonomous local chapter volunteers to organize and staff all activities including necessary fundraising.

I met Maryland HOW Coordinator, Jim Cooper, better known as "Coop," at a local outdoor program a few months back and accepted his invitation to look into HOW. The Maryland chapter puts on monthly outings from March or April through November. (They're exploring adding indoor programs for winter.) Their 25-foot van, currently stationed at a Carroll County church property, holds their kayaks and all auxiliary equipment including, paddles, kayak life vests and fishing equipment for each craft. In addition, volunteers staffing the outings often bring their own kayaks, auxiliary equipment and fishing gear that can be used in the events if needed.

In mid-August, on a day with a heat index well over 100 degrees, I attended the Maryland HOW event at Fort Smallwood Park near Annapolis where 15 participants fished for white perch and stripers in the junction of the waters of the Patapsco River, Rock Creek and Chesapeake Bay.

The participants were active and retired military personnel, men and women in a range of ages. Using spinning gear with offset spinner/jighead and grub combinations, all caught white perch often in good numbers and, to the surprise of many, in good sizes up to 12 inches with a few undersized stripers mixed in. (It's generally been a good year for white perch with loads of small stripers in these waters.) As is par for the course the day's fishing included "the big one that got away," a fish that just ran off without being turned before it got off (probably a ray, possibly a big striper) and one dunked kayaker, quickly rescued unharmed by the volunteers.

The day concluded with a deli lunch and a variety of beverages in the covered, but still hot, pavilion. As always everything was provided at no cost.

The event was well organized as the photos convey. Most of the volunteers were veterans from various branches of the military. Despite the heat, they worked hard the whole 8 to 10-hour day, a short day compared to some other of their programs, and jumped to give every assistance to the participants.

It would be easy to dismiss this day and this organization as a "do good, feel good" program –- and it would miss the point. In a conversation among the volunteers during a water break, Coast Guard veteran, William Schulze commented, "If the veterans don't take care of the vets, nobody else will." It seems to me more like no one else can provide the one-on-one outreach to those struggling during and after formal rehabilitation programs. This is a healing work, and like Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF), at least as necessary and as beneficial as any of the government provided services.

In 2013, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which showed that roughly 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, and some sources suggest that this rate may be undercounting suicides.

"Even one is one too many," says, Coop. Recently he added a video of veteran Jason Austin to the Maryland HOW Facebook page with the notation, "This is why we do what we do." Austin related how he literally had a shotgun in his mouth when a call came from a stranger inviting him to go fishing the next day. After the trip he came home, sold the shotgun, bought fishing and kayaking gear and now serves as unofficial ambassador for HOW.

Typically with programs of this type, anecdotal evidence is all that's available. But in 2013 Troy University conducted a year-long professional study of twice per week fishing/kayaking sessions for 409 veterans with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). They later reported the following eye-popping findings to the American Recreational Therapy Association: a 78% reduction of overall stress, a 77% reduction in hyper vigilance, a 63% reduction in avoidance behavior and a 56% reduction in recurring nightmares. The findings are still being analyzed, and further studies are contemplated.

Admittedly the study was done under controlled conditions which cannot be directly extrapolated to chapter programs, and people who could benefit from HOW programs are all unique. Still the study does support the anecdotal reports.

HOW developed at the famous Brook Army Hospital in San Antonio (been there) in 2007. It was expanded to several other sites in 2009 and has now gone national and international, with allied programs in United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Dolan plans to keep the program focused on the healing aspects of kayak fishing while using networking and social media to work with other healing programs.

In speaking with Coop and HOW founder and "Chief Fishing Officer" Jim Dolan, a couple of familiar themes emerged. As with PHWFF, those being healed become the healers, reaching out as persons who have experienced similar traumas and difficulties, benefitted from HOW programs and now volunteer in HOW programs and start new chapters. For many veterans, participants and volunteers, HOW also offers a reconnection with the lost service and unit camaraderie experiences of their military careers.

For more information, including the Jason Austin video, see the Heroes on the Water Maryland Facebook page or go to heroesonthewater.org.

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