Texas vets find therapy on water

By Jacquielynn Floyd
Associated Press

DALLAS – People who carry on with missionary zeal about the poetry of sailing are probably not manning a bilge pump or scrubbing a hull, but the poetry is there.

It’s there when the sailor captures the basic physics of wind, water and sail to create seamless motion. For those who love the sport, there’s no joy to match it.

That very particular joy was shared recently with a group of combat veterans, wounded warriors invited to participate with their families in a learn-to-sail seminar on Grapevine Lake northwest of Dallas.

“We think sailing teaches life lessons,” said Julie Jacob, a member of the Grapevine Sailing Club, which along with the American Airlines Sailing Club provided teachers and boats for the event. “It’s about trying to learn how to adjust on the fly.”

That’s a fitting metaphor for the profound challenges facing veterans participating in the Wounded Warrior Project.

“They’ve been forced to change their path in life and learn how to handle things all over again,” said Andrew Powers, a coordinator for the program and a former U.S. Army corporal who lost an eye in an explosion in Iraq.

The demands are far more than physical, he added. “It’s the internal wounds, the moral wounds,” he told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1zcdeZc ). “They have to live with those every day.”

Said Navy veteran Jared Crouse of Waco: “I’m looking forward to the rush of the wind, the quiet. Now I get to enjoy the top side of the water. It’s a great stress reliever.”

Crouse was injured in 2007 aboard a submarine deployed to the Middle East. When a generator malfunctioned, oxygen deprivation caused one of his retinas to detach, leaving him with permanent optical damage.

Army veteran David Callaway has fought post-traumatic stress since his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. At times, the stress is so severe that he can’t leave his house, and seeks the oblivion of sleep before sundown.

But since he enrolled in a five-man pilot program for the sailing seminar in July, he eagerly anticipated sharing the experience with the larger warrior contingent.

“I have really been looking forward to this. I’m really interested in learning to sail,” he said.

Callaway spoke with an eagerness that suggests he was surprised at finding that the capacity for pleasurable anticipation still existed in his consciousness.

“I don’t know whether these volunteers realize it or not,” he said, “but this is therapy.”

It’s a typical and commendable impulse to want to help injured veterans. A lot of people want to participate, but it takes a lot of effort and coordination to pull off a program like this one.

The idea started with a Coast Guard Auxiliary member named Jerry Shacklett, a retired firefighter and Vietnam veteran who got other members of his flotilla interested in sharing their love of the water with wounded warriors. They enrolled sailing club volunteers to act as hosts and instructors, and presented the plan to the warrior project.

“There’s a physical part to sailing, but there’s a psychological effect as well,” Shacklett said. “Just letting the wind and the water take over is very relaxing.”

On a recent Saturday morning, the classroom part of the lesson commenced in a Grapevine hotel conference room. While families chatted and kids played in the lobby, the warriors reviewed the basics (bow equals “pointy end”; stern is the “not pointy end”) and discussed propulsion, wind velocity, tacking and jibing.

In the classroom, it’s pretty prosaic stuff. It’s on the water that the poetry is revealed.

A couple of hours later, as a guest aboard a Coast Guard Auxiliary pontoon boat, I watched the sailors in action.

In the cockpit of one gorgeous boat, its sails scooped full of a light midday wind, a warrior who is a triple amputee manned the tiller with his one arm. Across the water, I could see him laughing out loud.

In another sloop, a warrior leaned back with automatic precision, smoothly shifting his balance as the boat heeled and came about. He was learning to sail from his volunteer instructor, and from the boat, and from the wind itself.

There were more activities to come during the weekend: swimming, a family barbecue, tickets for the Cowboys-Ravens preseason game. There was the relaxed camaraderie of being with those of shared experience, people who “get it.”

And for some of these warriors who have sacrificed so much and whose sacrifice continues — for all of them, I hope — there were a few moments of wind-and-water perfection.