A non­profit sail­ing group of­fers a life­line to sol­diers with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der

Soundings - - Contents - BY PIM VAN HEM­MEN

In an ef­fort to get vet­er­ans with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der back into so­ci­ety, a doc­tor dis­cov­ered that sail­ing was the per­fect pre­scrip­tion.

Eight years ago, Ron Acierno re­al­ized he needed a new method to treat vet­er­ans with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD). “Through ther­apy, we were get­ting rid of the PTSD symp­toms,” says Acierno, a clin­i­cal di­rec­tor at the Ralph H. John­son Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Charleston, South Carolina. “But we couldn’t get the vets to rein­te­grate into the com­mu­nity.”

The vets had to get out of their houses and into sit­u­a­tions that were un­com­fort­able. “It had to be some­thing that was scary and fun,” he says.

Acierno’s sail­boat was in the ma­rina across from the med­i­cal cen­ter, so he took one of his pa­tients sail­ing.

“Most peo­ple have never gone sail­ing,” Acierno says. “It’s a lit­tle bit scary at first, but in life, you don’t avoid stress. You have to deal with it.”

On the boat, vet­er­ans couldn’t walk away from the stress. They had to work to­gether, be so­cial and sail the boat to get back home. Soon, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion was formed, some­one do­nated a boat, a ma­rina pro­vided a slip and cap­tains vol­un­teered.

To­day, Vet­er­ans on Deck ( VOD) owns two sail­boats and takes vets sail­ing five days a week, 50 weeks a year. The Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion tells vets about the pro­gram, and par­tic­i­pa­tion is vol­un­tary. “It’s not a sub­sti­tute for coun­sel­ing,” Acierno says. “It com­ple­ments it.”

Greg Con­ners was a cap­tain in the U.S. Air Force who served one tour in Afghanistan and an­other in Iraq. Af­ter leav­ing the ser­vice in 2014, he moved to Charleston and strug­gled on some days to leave his house.

“It’s so low-key,” he says of the sail­ing pro­gram. “I had never sailed be­fore. You can just go for a ride. No­body pushes you into any­thing, and the peo­ple are fan­tas­tic. It’s free­ing.”

Ed Venere, a Viet­nam-era Army vet who is the group’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, says the idea is to elim­i­nate ob­sta­cles for the vet­er­ans. “We don’t have a reser­va­tion sys­tem,” he says. “The vets just walk up, and we ask them about their mil­i­tary ser­vice. We don’t ask for proof, and we don’t charge.”

“We try to re­move that fear of so­cial­iz­ing,” he adds. “They’re on a boat with peo­ple who are all like them. That’s a com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment for them. We’re for­tu­nate to have at least a half dozen vol­un­teers who are so com­mit­ted, they’d stand on their heads to make it hap­pen.”

Rob Atkin­son, who served in the U. S. Navy and re­tired af­ter a ca­reer in the marine in­dus­try, vol­un­teers as a skip­per for the all­men’s sail on Tues­days. On Thurs­days he main­tains the group’s boats. One of them is Caith­ness, a 29- foot Thomas Gillmer ketch that Atkin­son’s fa­ther do­nated to the pro­gram in 2018. The other is a cold-molded, 31-foot Wylie sloop, a de­scen­dant of the Tom Wylie-de­signed Gem­ini Twins that raced on San Fran­cisco Bay.

When Atkin­son joined the group, the Wylie had not been out of the wa­ter in four years and suf­fered from leaks and deck rot. He and a vol­un­teer workforce made re­pairs, gave her a new paint job and re­launched her. They rechris­tened her DD 214, af­ter the doc­u­ment all vet­er­ans re­ceive upon dis­charge from the mil­i­tary.

“It takes all of us pulling to­gether to sail the boats and cre­ate the ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Atkin­son, who also serves on the non­profit’s board of di­rec­tors. “I feel like we are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence for the vet­er­ans who join us, and it ben­e­fits those with­out PTSD too.”

Venere re­calls one Afghanistan vet who, for three days, watched from a dis­tance as the group gath­ered for daily sails. A coun­selor at the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion had told him the pro­gram might help him.

“I went over to him and said, ‘Are you here for VOD?’” Venere re­calls. “And he said, ‘Well, I’m think­ing about it, but would you mind back­ing up a bit?’ On the fourth day, he came over and talked to us. On the fifth visit, he got on the boat. Be­fore the two hours was over, we couldn’t get him to stop talk­ing. He was so iso­lated, but he came alive.

“For me,” Venere says, “that was the ul­ti­mate.”

Caith­ness was do­nated to the pro­gram in 2018.

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