Military members give up a lot when enlisting to fight for their country. Some even pay the ultimate price.
The Kansas chapter of Heroes on the Water seeks to support them in turn by helping veterans adjust to civilian life after returning home. The group provides kayak-fishing equipment and gear, and opportunities to use them, for former and current military members and their families, said chapter coordinator Lyle Babcock.
“We provide an environment where the vet and family can come and be a family,” he said. “As a chapter, we are there to serve the ones that have served or are serving our great country without being hounded for donations, information or asked for something. We provide everything when they attend an event — from the food, drinks, kayaks, life vests, fishing rods, fishing gear, bait, fishing license — it’s all there for them without any charge.
“When they get there, they have a few choices. If they want to fish from the shore, then fish from the shore. If they want to kayak, then kayak. If they want to fish and kayak — you get the picture. We aren’t here to herd them around. We are here to provide a safe, stress-free place (where) they can decompress and re-engage as a family.”
The nature of some members’ injuries presents special challenges for the organization when it comes to providing equipment and instruction. Some of the veterans are missing limbs, so the organization must be able to provide kayak seats suitable for full paraplegics. But, Babcock stressed, constant supervision isn’t what the chapter is about.
“Yes, many of our vets have PTSD, TBI or are missing limbs,” Babcock said. “I myself have PTSD. I didn’t choose to get it, but I got it nevertheless. I do have a choice: I can let my PTSD control me or I can control it by seeking counsel and taking care of myself. Kayaking and fishing is one of those ways for me. This is the approach we as a chapter have taken. I guess we take a Kansan approach to most problems — if it’s broke, then fix it or find a way to make it work.”
If a veteran can’t grip a paddle, Babcock said, they might get a floating noodle and duct-tape it to a paddle. If a veteran is missing an arm, he or she might need to get a kayak that can be pedaled like a bicycle, or have a second kayak that pulls them around the lake.
“We aren’t here to tell them they can’t,” Babcock said. “We are here to encourage them and provide an opportunity so they can.”
Babcock recalled an event last summer at El Dorado Lake where a veteran participating in the event was missing his left leg. The veteran and his friend asked if they could go out and fish off one of the kayaks. Without hesitation, Babcock gave the veteran a look like that was a stupid question and said, “Yes, let’s get you in one!”
He got the veteran a pedal kayak and pointed at the man’s prosthetic leg, asking him, “What can you do with that thing?”
“Now he looked at me as though I was stupid, and grabbed his shoe and pulled it over his head. ‘I can do this,’ he said. We both laughed, and I duct-taped his shoe to the pedal, showed him how to operate it and shoved him off,” Babcock said. “His friend was standing there and told me that (the veteran) loved to fish and hunt, but his doctor and family told him he couldn’t anymore. Then, he said this is the first time he has gone fishing since returning home.
“He then said, ‘Besides me, you guys are the first people to treat him like he is just normal.’ My response was, ‘He is, isn’t he?’ Two hours later, they returned, he had caught some fish and had a smile on this face that told me the rest of the story.”
Babcock said the nonprofit depends on volunteers and donations — the chapter’s “lifeline” — to survive.
“We have a small group of core staff that each takes an area to ensure our outings are a success,” he said. “We meet and make decisions as a group on the direction of the chapter. Without their dedication, the chapter would not have the success we have had. We also have a dedicated group of volunteers that help at events, each having an area that they are trained in to help the chapter. We are always looking for new volunteers — it doesn’t matter if it’s for one event or multiple events over the summer.”
The chapter has no paid staff, and 100 percent of funds it raises stay in the Kansas chapter.
“Our volunteers are always willing to help with fundraising,” said Jane Welch, community outreach/multimedia coordinator for the Kansas chapter of HOW. “We have worked the concession stands at the Washburn University home football games and at Heartland Park during the NHRA races. We have sold Sonic cards and have one volunteer that gets donations of different items (such as furniture and knick-knacks) and sells the items via a Facebook group and at garage sales. We have volunteers that go out into the community and ask for donations of water, meals for the outings, paper plates, napkins, silverware, etc. When Billy Vanilly was still open, they would provide us cupcakes for our weekly outings.”
Because of the success the chapter has had in cultivating a relaxed, independent environment, the demand for new equipment and volunteers to help put on events continues to grow.
“We have had so much growth in our first four years that it’s been hard to stay ahead of,” Babcock said. “I am slowly working on paying off some tandem kayaks we needed last year when we doubled the number of family members attending. We have received tremendous support from individuals, businesses and organizations throughout the area.”
The program is always looking for volunteers, and previous kayaking experience isn’t necessary. Those interested in volunteering can sign up online at Heroesonthewater.org.
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