Dick Cooper - March 2009
Wounded Warriors Sail the Miles River
The Army Major was a trim, athletic woman in her late forties with Hawaiian-surfer blonde hair and she was immediately at home in the cockpit of our 40-foot sailboat. She said she had grown up on the water and thanked us for the opportunity to take a break from her treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The Specialist, who had just turned 20, took a few minutes to get onboard. She was using a cane. She had been blown up when insurgents attacked her convoy in Iraq. She said she too loved the water and had spent her youth on the beaches of Florida.
As my wife, Pat, and I motored away from the docks of the Miles River Yacht Club on our first Herring Island Sailing Fleet Vet Sail two summers ago, we had no idea we would be meeting a steady flow of new friends; or how touching and bittersweet their stories would be.
Once a month, through the sailing season on the Miles, members of Herring Island, the performance handicapped racing fleet of the Yacht Club, use their boats to take wounded warriors for a sail.
It all started when Herring Island sailor Jon LeTowt of St. Michaels looked for a way to salute those who give so much. About 60 veterans and more than a score of sailors have participated over the last two years.
LeTowt said he started to think about what could be done to help veterans during a visit to Maryland’s Eastern Shore Veterans’ Cemetery in Hurlock in late 2006. On the entryway to the cemetery he saw the words “The Price of Freedom May be Seen Here.”
LeTowt said a short time later he attended a fund-raiser in Trappe for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a nonprofit group that assists service men and women being treated at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center
“I heard people talk about sponsoring soldiers on a hunting afternoon. Another said he brought in some soldiers for a golf outing,” LeTowt recalled. “I approached (a Yellow Ribbon official) and said, ‘I don’t hunt and I don’t play golf anymore, but I do know something about sailing.’”
He made contact with Walter Reed officials in the spring of 2007. He said one of the biggest accomplishments in those first few months was getting Walter Reed to agree to bus the veterans to St. Michaels.
“I had to sell the idea of the trip to the Eastern Shore,” he said.
Since then, LeTowt has worked with Walter Reed officials to set dates and times for the Vet Sail and enlisted the help of boat owners who volunteered their time and vessels.
Several variables can change the best of plans. The weather is a key factor. LeTowt said he would not send landlubbers into the eye of a storm, especially those who are being treated for traumatic injuries. The threat of a tropical storm forced the cancellation of an event last September. There are also unknowns on the hospital side. Soldiers often do not know what their daily treatment schedule will be until first thing in the morning. On a few occasions, 16 had signed up for the trip to the Eastern Shore the day before but only half of them could make the bus by the 10 a.m. departure.
On a typical day, the soldiers arrive at the Miles River Yacht Club on Longhaul Creek north of the village of St. Michaels about noon on the fourth Thursday of the month. The captains and their crew meet their guests in the Clubhouse where LeTowt, working from his clipboard, gives out the assignments. He usually sends two soldiers to each boat. Several of the soldiers travel with family or friends for the day, and he keeps them together.
Everyone is given a box lunch and a bottle of water prepared by the Yacht Club staff and then head out for three to four hours on the water.
Pat and I have been surprised at how open the soldiers have been about their experiences and the injuries that sent them to Walter Reed.
“It is startling how fragile they are when they come here,” Pat said. “They have given so much of their lives for us. We are happy to give them something back.”
That first sail was a lazy, light air day that had us chasing cat’s paws around the Miles River and Leeds Creek.
The Major and the Specialist did not know each other before getting on the bus that morning but they shared stories of their lives before and during the Iraq War. The Major, a native of Hawaii, had been a surgeon in California.
“I joined the Army Reserves after 9/11,” she said. “I felt I had to do something to help.”
And help she did. She was deployed to Iraq four times. It was on the fourth tour that she was injured, twice. The first time the humvee she was in was hit by a roadside bomb. She suffered leg injuries and was treated in Iraq. The second time, she was not as lucky. When the bomb exploded and the humvee was wrecked, she suffered a traumatic brain injury. She had undergone several surgeries and was facing more, but the injury she said hurt the most was the loss of her occupation.
“I am a surgeon,” she said with pride and conviction. “Now, because I have seizures, no one will let me do my job anymore. They said I could be a hospital administrator, but I am not an administrator, I am a surgeon.”
The Specialist was so young she said she didn’t even have a past.
“I just turned 20,” she said. “I haven’t had time to do anything yet.”
She pulled out a small album with 4-by-6-inch photos showing her smiling and looking sharp in her desert camo uniform. In another photo, she was posing at the trigger of a very serious machine gun that was almost as big as she was. In civilian life, she designed web sites, but for now, she was concentrating on getting her body back in shape.
By mid-afternoon, the Major and the Specialist began to relax while the boat coasted along. They both rolled up their pants legs and sat on the low side of the boat, dangling their bare feet in the river.
Every one of the soldiers we have taken out for a sail has loved their fellow soldiers as if they were family, but they all said they hated the process at Walter Reed that they found confusing and bureaucratic.
One Specialist from Virginia told how he had been injured early in the war in a freak accident. His job was maintaining a huge generator that supplied power to his camp in Iraq. One night, while working on the generator, he was electrocuted and blown off a 20-foot-high catwalk, landing on his head.
He said he spent two years in Walter Reed, most of the time being unable to speak. He said he was allowed to go home but was sent back to Walter Reed after his post-traumatic stress disorder kicked in and he began to punch out walls in his grandparents’ home. He said that when he returned to the hospital, officials could not find records that he had been treated there before. Now, he says, he keeps copies of all of his records.
On another sail, Pat and I took out two soldiers who also had never met before they got into our cockpit. As we usually do, we introduce ourselves and tell them about Tusitala, our 1971 Hinckley Bermuda yawl. When it was their turn, they found out that they were both from Texas. Not only were they both from Texas, they were both from the same part of Texas. By the time they sorted it all out, they realized they had grown up a few miles apart, attended rival high schools and had common friends.
By 4 p.m., we head back to the Yacht Club for a social hour in the lounge before dinner in the Trophy Room. There, other yacht club members join the boaters, their families and the soldiers for dinner. By the end of the evening, we have all exchanged e-mails and contact information.
Suellen Gargalli of St. Michaels was commodore of the Yacht Club when the program began and said it has been embraced by club members who have paid for the soldiers’ meals.
“Everyone has rallied around our soldiers for all of the bravery they have shown,” she said.
Several of the soldiers have returned for outings over the last two years.
“I guess people who came brought back positive feedback,” LeTowt said.
Si Boettner of St. Michaels, who heads up the Herring Island Sailing Fleet, said the program has been a good addition to the racing fleet’s social calendar.
“As a sailing fleet, we honor the sailor’s duty to come to the aid of any ship under distress at sea,” he said. “Similarly, we are honored to provide these brave soldiers a respite from their wounds through the healing experience of sailing on the beautiful Miles River. We are grateful for their service and the companionship they bring”
LeTowt said he is busy getting organized for Vet Sail ’09.
“I would say the captains and crews who volunteer their time learned a lot more from the soldiers than they ever expected,” he said. “It was good for both sides.
“I think that the smiles on the faces of the troops coming in at the end of the day were the best rewards.”
More information about the Herring Island Sailing Fleet can be found at www.hisf.org. Details about the Yellow Ribbon Fund are at www.yellowribbonfund.org.