With Memorial Day coming up Monday and signaling the unofficial start to summer, many campers and anglers will be heading to the lakes to enjoy the three-day weekend without even stopping to think about the reason this day is observed.
Because of this, one nonprofit organization is working to help both current and former military members rehabilitate and readjust to life back at home through the sport of kayak fishing.
“When I got back from deployment, I told my wife I was going to buy a kayak for fishing, and then I bought two — one for me and one for her,” said Lyle Babcock, event coordinator for the Kansas chapter of Heroes on the Water. “Around the same time, I started volunteering at the VA. One thing led to another and I started taking vets that were in-patients out fishing.
“The first time I figured out I was on to something was out at Shawnee County fishing lake. A group of vets and I were out fishing and I had our two kayaks. A female vet that had been through hell took one of the kayaks out, and after a half-hour of not seeing her, I went out to find her. When I finally found her, I asked if she was all right. She looked at me and said, ‘I haven’t been this relaxed in years,’ as she leaned back into the seat. I knew what she had been through, and for her to say that made an impact on me. We weren’t doing anything besides fishing, sharing a couple of kayaks and enjoying some time as a group of vets. I started researching vets and kayak fishing and found Heroes on the Water, a nonprofit that had chapters across the nation. I contacted them and never looked back.”
Babcock is among those who suffer from PTSD. His service dog, Gunther — a 100-pound yellow lab — tags along during the group’s fishing outings, often seen riding on the back of kayaks with the anglers. Service dogs can provide a calming presence that helps those struggling with PTSD or other traumatic brain injuries.
When the chapter was started, Babcock said the national organization asked the chapter to focus on veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities. However, he said, as the group’s core volunteers stepped forward, the chapter began to plow its own path.
“As a group, we could see the need of our program to all veterans, active, reserve or retired, regardless of if you spent time in the sandbox or stateside. If you served, you’re welcome to attend.”
Babcock said this began to make the Kansas chapter stand apart from others, and that its kayak fishing events the past two years have been among the most well-attended of HOW’s 79 chapters in the United States.
“But it’s not about the numbers of attendees,” he said. “It’s about providing a safe, stress-free place that vets and their families can come and re-engage as a family again.”
The Kansas chapter of HOW recently hosted an event at Lake Shawnee for veterans going through the Topeka VA’s post-traumatic stress disorder program.
“One thing we also focus on during our weekly outings is to keep things consistent,” said Jane Welch, community outreach/multimedia coordinator for the Kansas chapter of HOW. “As veterans go through the PTSD program at the VA, they are relieving a lot of horrible memories. By staying consistent, we provide a safe space where they can come and know that things will be the same every time they come out to the lake with us. They show up, we feed them, they can fish or kayak or both or neither. We had a veteran come to our event and every week would just sit in the lawn chair and talk with other veterans. We encouraged, but never pushed him to try kayaking. About four weeks into the program, he took his first outing in the kayak, and from then on we had a hard time getting him off the water at the end of the night.”
June will be a busy month for Heroes on the Water. HOW will be on hand from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 6 at the Topeka Gives event at Fairlawn Plaza. The Kansas chapter also will host kayak fishing events June 10 at Lake Shawnee’s south boat dock and June 24 at Horton Lake. Both of these fishing events will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, visit the Kansas chapter’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/HOWKansasChapter/or contact the chapter by phone at (785) 548-5320.
Read more about the Kansas chapter of Heroes on the Water by clicking here.
Heroes on the Water is a nonprofit program benefiting nearly 33,000 current and former military service members and members of their families. The organization reports a 56 percent reduction in overall stress, a 62 percent reduction in hyper vigilance and a 63 percent reduction in avoidance behavior in its members. It was founded in 2007 as a way to help warriors returning from war through the therapeutic properties of fishing and being outdoors. Participants in the program receive instruction of kayaking and fishing, with skill sets ranging from beginners to the most experienced of paddlers.
Heroes on the Water - Kansas chapter
June 6 — Topeka Gives event, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
June 10 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Lake Shawnee’s south boat dock
June 24 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Horton Lake
July 21-23 — Kansas Veterans and Family Reunion, El Dorado
July 29 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Cedar Lake/Osage Shelter in Olathe
Aug. 12 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Clinton Lake
Aug. 26 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., John Redmond Reservoir
Sept. 16 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Lake Shawnee’s south boat dock
Sept. 23 — Tecumseh Heritage Days with Fishing’s Future, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Oct. 14 — Kayak fishing, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Lake Shawnee’s south boat dock
MAKE A DONATION
By mail: Write to Heroes on the Water, 101-C N. Greenville Ave., No. 55, Allen, TX 75002