Military veterans, active-duty military members and first responders are finding unique opportunities to socialize and enjoy recreation in an aquatic environment through Heroes on the Water (HOW), which recently opened a chapter in Oceanside.
With more than 20 million veterans across the nation, including roughly a million in Southern California, plus legions of first responders throughout the U.S., there is a clear demand for services provided by HOW. Individuals returning from active military duty or having served as first responders in law enforcement or other emergency services often need a safe place where they can share their experiences in a non-threatening setting and engage in creative or physical activity.
Many HOW members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injury, and some face great obstacles to returning to work and getting involved in recreational and community activities. Medical and psychological researchers at both the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Mental Health have demonstrated conclusively that physical activity and social interaction in a low-stress environment contribute to better mental and physical health.
Each HOW chapter has a leadership team of at least four volunteers who, along with a group of members, plan and manage events for other members and their families. The leadership team coordinates aquatic events designed to get members physically active, particularly in kayak fishing, plus getting together with their families at outdoor barbecues and other activities.
The overall objective of HOW is to provide a social climate where members can unwind in a supportive yet competitive atmosphere. Kayak fishing, a sport rapidly growing in popularity across the U.S., places a great demand on one’s physical agility, stamina and concentration, all of which combine in a unique form of therapy. This unique yet age-old art is especially valuable for individuals who have survived a great deal of violence and high levels of stress in their careers.
HOW chapters hold regularly scheduled events, usually a minimum of one per month, to ensure members are staying involved in physical activity within a supportive environment on a regular basis. While many members also may receive regular care through the Veteran’s Administration or a civilian healthcare provider, HOW focuses strictly on encouraging members to become active in an aquatic setting where both vigorous activity and meditation combine to restore self-confidence and peace of mind.
Laura Armbruster, HOW’s director of communications and community engagement, stressed the therapeutic value of getting members out on the water. “One of my favorite parts of my role is to interview our participants and our volunteers. They tell me flat out that being in a kayak – it’s a quiet space. There’s this whole interaction with nature. It’s quiet. You’re very close to the water.”
Interestingly, Armbruster drew a connection between members’ challenging careers and their pastime on the water: “Because they’re mission-driven people, they need something to focus on. Working that kayak and catching a fish becomes their next small mission.”
Armbruster added, “It gives them something to unplug and focus on. And when they come back on shore, they have a release. It may not be long-term, but they have a release, a new focus, and new bit of confidence.”
In a recent YouTube video, Central California HOW Chapter Chairman Zack Cliff shared his experiences as a kayak angler working with veterans from the Gulf War and law enforcement officers who have experienced violence while on duty.
“We’ve grown this chapter in huge ways,” said Cliff. “We had eight kayaks in 2018, and now we have 22.” He went on to describe some of the challenges he has faced growing his HOW chapter, but overall, he continues to build an organization with strong support from its members and the surrounding community.
Cliff also described examples of how the large community can help support the work HOW does for our veterans and first responders. “I’ve built relationships with local tackle shops and distributors and their reps.” He added, “We’re 100-percent donation based,” and mentioned a local business that has donated more than $25,000 in fishing tackle and boat gear for his local HOW chapter.
Here in Southern California, HOW is actively working with the business community to provide members with the resources they need for meaningful, challenging experiences on the water. The Oceanside chapter offers “no-cost therapeutic kayak fishing experiences to veterans, first-responders, active-duty military members and their families.”
If you or someone you know qualifies for HOW membership, contact the Oceanside chapter at email@example.com.