A perfect day out on the marsh at Waterways Township was made even better Saturday by a crisp fall breeze and a clear, blue sky.
The only sounds to be heard at the Waterways Marina were the lapping of waves on kayaks and the laughter of a handful of fishermen. For some, it was a rare opportunity to leave their combat injuries behind them and experience the simple joy of casting a line.
“We’ll put them in a kayak, we’ll give them tackle, we’ll feed them, we’ll give them experienced fishermen out on the water in case they need help, and we’ll just give them a good day of fishing,” said Jim Kelly, coordinator of Coastal Georgia’s Heroes on the Water.
Kelly and a group of volunteers have been introducing wounded troops to kayak fishing about once every other month since 2007. From amputation to PTSD, no injury is too severe, according to Kelly, for his team to work with.
During the past six years, HOW has helped 3,100 soldiers overcome their physical disabilities through kayak fishing, he said. For Kelly, the real victory of HOW is seeing the dramatic transformation in the soldiers faces when they get out on the water.
“You just watch the smiles, whether they catch a fish or not,” he said. “It’s easy for us to give back, because we’re just doing what we love and sharing it with them. It’s as simple as that, really.”
William Vargas’ back pain made it difficult for him to move around comfortably. He later told Vance Askew, Waterways Township marketing and sales director, that the paddling motion in the kayak was surprisingly easy on his back.
While many of the soldiers were paddling their way back to shore for lunch, Vargas couldn’t help but hit the water one last time.
“It’s a lot of fun. For a while, I was just going backwards and then I was going in circles, but I really like it,” Vargas said.
The soldiers spent about four hours learning to kayak and reeling in a few bass, after which they were treated to a barbecue lunch on the banks of the marsh pond. Some caught a few fish, while some caught none at all.
Though Kelly said he can’t do justice to the rehabilitative aspect of kayaking, he can testify to the healing power of fishing with a few people who understand where you come from.
“They might be ‘yes sir’ ‘no sir’ when they get out here, but once we get them out on the water we’re on first-name basis,” he said.
For more information about volunteering with Heroes on the Water or how to donate time or resources, go to heroesonthewater.org.