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Veterans finding healing on the water

By John Felsher

Many people find gliding along silently in a kayak, listening to nature, quite soothing, even therapeutic. But for injured veterans, such an experience could be life-changing.

Brian Carson, Heroes on the Water’s South Alabama chapter coordinator.

“Not all war injuries are visible,” says Brian Carson of Bay Minette, who serves as the coordinator for the South Alabama chapter of Heroes on the Water. “We try to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, but we won’t hesitate to help someone with a physical limitation. We treat all veterans the same.”

With about 80 chapters nationwide, including three in Alabama, and some international chapters, HOTW ( takes veterans fishing in kayaks. These adventures give veterans opportunities to relax and decompress from their stress, which helps with their mental and physical healing.

“We put them on the water in a fishing situation to unwind and disengage from their daily activities,” Carson says. “It’s a healing process and a ‘thank you’ for their service. We provide the kayaks, the paddles, fishing gear, the guide – everything. The veterans never pay a cent.”

Carson reached out to one young soldier who suffered serious injuries while serving in Iraq. After returning home, the man did not adjust very well and contemplated suicide. Carson invited him to fish the annual HOTW kayak tournament.

“He was a little nervous about participating,” Carson recalls. “He called me a couple weeks after the tournament and said, ‘That time on the water gave me a chance to reflect and look back on what’s important. If I can get out on the water in a kayak and fish, I can do anything.’ That’s a recurring story with many vets. Another person was on the verge of committing suicide when one of our people invited him to fish. He went and it changed his life. He’s now helping other veterans to come back from these dark moments.”

The South Alabama chapter holds a paddling event about once a month. Each fall, the chapter hosts a kayak fishing tournament, next slated for Sept. 16, 2017. Veterans and guides will fish for several species found in Mobile Bay and associated waters.

“I knew how to kayak before my brain injury, but I forgot it,” says David Atkins of Mobile, who used to work on Apache helicopters while in the Army and participated in a recent kayak fishing trip in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. “Heroes on the Water is reteaching me how to kayak more efficiently and correctly. You have to live, laugh and love when you can.”

Tonya Butler-Collins with Team River Runner instructs others on the proper ways to paddle a kayak while participating in a South Alabama Chapter of Heroes on the Water paddling event held in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Spanish Fort, Ala.

Team River Runner

The South Alabama chapter teamed up with another group to help veterans heal through a relaxing day on the water. With more than 50 chapters in 31 states, Team River Runner ( “creates an environment of healthy adventure, recreation and camaraderie for healing active duty, veteran service members and their families through adaptive kayaking,” reads the organization mission statement.

“I teach adaptive boating and help people with disabilities,” says Tonya Butler-Collins, the TRR South Alabama Chapter coordinator. “I’ve kayaked for many years, but I haven’t done much fishing from one. Brian takes care of the fishing and I do the kayaking. We put these two skill sets together to give more opportunities to vets.”

Not just a coordinator, but a beneficiary, Butler-Collins served in the Army and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Now a medical massage therapist, she sees both sides of rehabilitation.

“I’m a vet who went through a lot of this myself,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t have a lot of support. Now, I help veterans with brain and spinal cord injuries regain a sense of independence through sports, recreation and community involvement. I’d like to break down some barriers for other female veterans to get out and do more outdoors sports. A lot of female vets love being outdoors, but many organizations forget to invite them.”

Many of the people who participate in events with Carson or Butler-Collins never sat in any boat before, much less such a small, tippy craft as low to the water as a kayak. Some people with physical injures need extra help or special equipment.

“Depending upon the injury, we can adapt a kayak to meet the needs of that person,” Butler-Collins says. “For instance, if the person has a spinal injury, we have special seats that hold them up, but they can still paddle on their own. We also have pontoons that we can add to kayaks so they won’t tip over.”

To hold events, both HOTW and TRR need help. They could use more volunteers to donate their time. People can also make tax-deductible contributions of equipment or money. With more boats and fishing gear, they could help more veterans who wish to participate.

Never wish a veteran “Happy Memorial Day” because it is not meant to be a happy day. On Memorial Day this year, simply say, “thank you,” or get involved with a group like HOTW and TRR that helps vets who served all of us.

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at