Sailing program soothes soldiers in troubled waters.

January 27, 2021

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Lee Price

Sailing program soothes soldiers in troubled waters.

PENTWATER — The West Michigan Sail Program (WMSP) announced that the not-for-profit-organization has formally launched a fundraising campaign to support critically needed programming for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).

PTS, formerly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has exponentially worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread unemployment and unprecedented political unrest.

WMSP announced that the organization has acquired four well-equipped sail boats, including one outfitted for handicapped sailors, and three dinghies for use in programming designed to give veterans the team-and-mission-inspired experience of learning to sail, and in doing so, learn to heal their demons.

Sailing is therapeutic. Learning to sail in a team environment with other veterans having similar issues and life experiences is uniquely and metaphorically well suited to help soldiers deal with issues that, without help, could impact them for the rest of their lives.

“Veteran suicides averaged 22 per day before the pandemic,” said Lee Price, founder and president of WMSP. “The economic impacts wreaked by the pandemic have worsened conditions for most newly-discharged veterans and our board of directors recently said enough is enough.” Price is a licensed captain and sailing instructor.

According to US military records, veterans are 1.5 times more likely to take their own lives than people that never served in the military. Female veterans are more than two times more likely to take their own lives, according to the same data. Suicides in general are at their highest levels since 1941. A five-year high, more than 200 Michigan veterans took their own lives in 2018 — the last year data is available from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

To help veterans suffering from PTS, as early as spring 2021, the WMSP intends to offer programs for veterans in a seven-county area that includes Oceana, Mason, Newaygo, Muskegon, Osceola, Mecosta and Lake counties. Utilizing programming designed specifically for veterans suffering from PTS, the WMSP will introduce the Basic Keelboat Class to as many as 12 veterans per week, utilizing both classroom and on-the-water-experiences, to give veterans the shared learning experience of sailing.

According to the Veterans Administration, there are more than 27,000 veterans living in the seven-county region that comprises the WMSP’s service area. More than 6,000 veterans in the seven-county region are actively being treated at VA facilities across Michigan, which is home to more than 500,000 veterans.

Michigan’s suicide rate among younger veterans is believed to be the highest in the nation.

“On average, rural counties have a higher ratio of persons enlisted in the military per 100,000 population than do more populated counties,” said David Masunas, veteran, WMSP board member and long-time member and volunteer with state and area veteran groups. “Rural counties often do not have as many career opportunities for high school graduates as more populated areas, which explains, in part, why the West Michigan area has so many veterans — and they need our help now,” Masunas added. “Some have seen battle, while others have not, but these are men and women that kept us safe when we needed it most. Now is the time for us to return the favor at a time when they need us the most,” Masunas said.

Even getting help is harder if you live in a rural area. “Having a program that might help but that is an hour away just doesn’t work for someone newly employed,” Masunas said.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem for many veterans. Being a newly discharged veteran also means you are new to the civilian workforce, which often means you are first to be laid off during a downturn. “If you already are having difficulty assimilating back to civilian life, or have a substance abuse problem, being laid off right out of the chute usually spells real trouble for this veteran,” said Andrea Tudor, veteran, recovered alcoholic, and WMSP board member.

“Veterans go from being a skilled member of a high-performing military team with shared mission and purpose and all the camaraderie that goes with that, to being unemployed and feeling unappreciated. We have to do something now to address this problem,” Tudor said. According to Tudor, women veterans, in particular, are joining with each other in associations like WINC (Women Injured in Combat) to heal from traumas experienced while deployed.

“Political unrest is especially hard on veterans who know the stress and horrors of war. They fear that they might be caught up in something that resembles a war at home,” Tudor said. “Veterans of wars aren’t quick to want to return to a battlefield of any kind, so it’s unsettling and stressful just hearing talk of civil unrest,” Tudor added.

Both Masunas and Tudor agree that being isolated for so long because of COIVID-19 is taking a heavy toll on veterans used to action and getting things done as a team. “Treatment has been much harder to get since COVID-19 began nearly a year ago, Tudor said. “Some of the very treatment centers veterans used to turn to in crisis have been closed for months.”

Utilizing the US Sailing Association’s “Basic Keelboat and Adaptive Sailing Certification Program,” the WMSP intends to reduce the number of veterans suffering from PTS and the number of veterans who take their own lives with programming that provides them with the same sense of teamwork and purpose they had while in active duty. It’s that sense of being a member of a team, and being able to count on each other, that is missed the most by newly discharged veterans.

“Life in the military is simpler. Even complicated things have been figured out for you. But when you arrive home, the team is no longer around you, and you have to adapt to your new life on your own,” said Ben Wisenbaugh, injured veteran and WMSP board member.

Whether a person experiences PTS is different for each individual and most deal with it in their own unique ways, without the professional help they need. Many feel guilty when they experience PTS, as though they are weak without a team around them.

“Your trauma isn’t my trauma,” Wisenbaugh said. “I didn’t experience it the same way others have.” Wisenbaugh, who was brain injured when an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded near his military vehicle, said most veterans experience PTS after being discharged, just as they are trying to begin their civilian lives.

Individuals interested in doing something about West Michigan veteran suicides and helping those suffering with PTS issues should contact the WMSP to find out how they can help by emailing the organization at [email protected] Contributions to WMSP are tax deductible and can be sent to: West Michigan Sail Program, PO Box 434, Pentwater, MI 49449.

If you are a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, call the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.

Contributed article and photo

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