Kayak Fishing Brings Them Back to Life

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Laura Armbruster

It’s often the simplest of things that have the greatest impact. For many of us, those simple things are commonplace. For the thousands of veterans who struggle to reintegrate into life outside the military, however, they are not common enough. Fortunately,  opportunities for veterans to improve their lives exist in all manner of programs, including kayak fishing. While this may seem more like recreation, Jim Dolan, founder of Heroes On The Water, knew that it is much more.

Heroes On The Water is a national organization, founded in 2007, that serves veterans, first responders and their families through chapter-led outings held regularly throughout the year. In the beginning, we had a few volunteers who loved to kayak fish and found it a relaxing way to unwind from the rigors of civilian life. However, soon our team started to see repeated results that showed improvement of symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury across all the chapters. That was when we knew that there was more to this than just fishing with new friends.

In December of 2007, a soldier treated for Traumatic Brain Injury at Brooke Army Medical Center attended his first Heroes On The Water (HOW) outing. He stuttered, was slow to process information, and at first was reluctant to get in the kayak. Once our team helped him get comfortable, he went on to paddle and fish for four hours by himself. When we were helping him on shore, we asked how his morning went. For 30 seconds he excitedly talked about how great kayaking was, that he caught five fish, and really enjoyed the time on the water. Then, he … and we… realized he was speaking normally. He said it was the first time in two years he was able to speak without a stutter. Although he quickly regressed to his former speech pattern, he said “Now I know I can do it. Now I have hope.”

“Our chapter and national leadership kept hearing positive feedback from both new and recurring participants,” says Bill Carnegie, CEO of HOW. “Early leadership knew from the constant comments and testimonials we received that kayak fishing was really helping our warriors, so we needed to do more.”

To get a better understanding of why kayak fishing was so effective, HOW took part in a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Kate Price-Howard and Dr. Miles Matise of Troy State University. The study was based on research showing that most veterans experience some kind of adjustment issues as they reintegrate into civilian and family life, because the thoughts and behaviors needed to survive on the battlefield are not necessarily helpful at home. The Troy University study revealed that participating in alternative therapies, particularly outdoor activities like those provided by HOW, obtained the following results:

  • 56% reduction in stress.
  • 60% reduction of re-experiencing, including frequent nightmares and flashbacks.
  • 63% reduction in avoidance behavior.
  • 62% reduction of hyper-vigilance, or constantly being on alert.

“When you include the need for veterans to have other therapeutic choices outside what they receive at the Veterans Administration, coupled with the challenges they face, it seems logical to provide alternative therapy through kayak fishing experiences,” says Carnegie. “Particularly since we have proof through participant feedback and the Troy study that it works.”

HOW’s mission is to help warriors relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate through kayak fishing and the outdoors. Although we started primarily supporting veterans, in 2018  we officially opened the program to another important group of  warriors in our community: first responders.

Our model is simple: gather a leadership team who are committed to holding regularly scheduled kayak fishing trips, train them through an effective online portal that teaches everything from fundraising to operational procedures to finding participants, and ask them to focus on supporting veterans and first responders in their local communities. This proven chapter expansion model that has yielded 76 chapters in 31 states, with more on the way.

Our tagline – PADDLE. FISH. HEAL. – reflects how we support our warriors and their families. It sums up our programs in a succinct way. Paddling in kayaks is good exercise and fishing is proven to be therapeutic. These activities provide a great way to focus a person’s mind so that they can do the thing that is most important – heal.

“Community, particularly family, is crucial to the continued success of our participants,” says Carnegie. “We are one of the few veteran’s service organizations that includes family members in our outings. We recognize the importance of supporting everyone in getting on the best path to wellness.”

According to Ray, one of our early participants, “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today – teacher, foster parent, parent, husband – if it wasn’t for this organization. I will honestly say that fishing and HOW saved my life. They changed everything about my life for the better.”

Laura Armbruster is the Director of Communications for Heroes On The Water. Her passion is to tell other’s stories, and which she does regularly by sharing the amazing tales of HOW participants. When she’s not doing that, she’s writing fiction.

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