A kayak drifts slowly across Ogle Lake at Brown County State Park. The veteran at the helm leans back in the seat and rests the paddle on his knees.
Lighting a cigarette and closing his eyes, he sighs deeply, inhaling the afternoon stillness.
Nearby, another veteran reels his fishing line in and prepares for another cast. Volunteers circulate: checking in, engaging or simply bringing out more bait when one of the veterans loses his in the lake.
The first Saturday of each summer month, volunteers with the Indiana chapter of Heroes on the Water line up their 24 kayaks and set up fishing gear to give former service members a day of fishing, kayaking or simply relaxing and conversing.
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For some, the experience is therapeutic. It’s a way for them to let go of anything they might be struggling with.
“I haven’t fished; I’ve just been going out on the lake in a kayak and meditating and getting peace of mind,” said Jerry Johnson, who served in the Army.
“It’s nice to just drift out there and let your head go, or maybe focus on something you haven’t been able to focus on for a while.”
Army veteran Marcus Graham had caught four bass by noon. “It’s great,” he said. “Compared to where I was this time last year, it’s a 180-degree turn.”
Though Heroes on the Water has been around since 2007, the Indiana chapter, which also serves Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois, was started only three years ago.
Indiana chapter founder Chris Thomas, who spent 10 years in the Army as a medic, said he found information about it on the Internet late one night and contacted Heroes on the Water founder Jim Dolan. Soon after, he and friend Dustin Kelley started the Indiana chapter.
Veteran Affairs recreational therapist Brittany Hook brings an average of 10 veterans to Heroes on the Water events.
Based at the VA’s domiciliary in Indianapolis, Hook works with homeless veterans, many of whom have had substance abuse or mental health problems.
“People seem to come out of their shell when they’re out there in the water in the kayak with their fishing pole,” she said.
Especially for those who have struggled with substance abuse, introducing recreational activities helps them identify a new way to deal with triggers that could lead them to abuse again.
“If in the future, if you are feeling depressed or anxious, you know that you can go fishing, and that would help combat those feelings,” she said.
For Graham, the VA program has been an inspiration for his own future. In August, he is starting college to study social work.
“I’m going to work with veterans that are in my position now, try to give back a little bit,” he said.
But Heroes on the Water events aren’t just for those seeking therapeutic release. The day of fishing or simply drifting aimlessly around Indiana’s lakes is for anyone who has served in the military, Thomas said.
Whether they have been deployed in recent or past conflicts or served in peacetime, Thomas encourages anyone connected to the military to come out and connect with their extended military family and with their community.
Mike Godsy, who has been volunteering with Heroes on the Water for two years, is a son of a veteran.
“These guys, when they come back, they need someone to be their friend and get them back into the outdoors, get ‘em back to the normalcy of life,” he said.
The response from veterans has been great, Thomas said. Often, though, it can be difficult to take care of everything — including providing lunch — with limited volunteers.
However, in Brown County, that hasn’t been an issue, he said.
Kevin Snyder, assistant property manager at Brown County State Park, became involved with Heroes on the Water after Thomas contacted him about having an event at Ogle Lake three years ago.
Snyder contacted Friends of Brown County State Park. “I started pounding the community and got a really positive response,” he said.
At other locations, when they only have Heroes on the Water volunteers helping, lunch may just be sandwiches. Most of the volunteers’ time is taken up helping the veterans with the kayaks.
However, when the event takes place in Brown County, Friends of Brown County State Park and other community members bring baked goods, grill out and stay around to socialize with the veterans, Thomas said.
It makes a huge difference.
This year, Susanne Gaudin helped to organize lunch for the veterans. Boy Scouts from Troop 156, Church of the Lakes members and other volunteers showed up to serve.
When it was over, the substantial food that remained was packed up and taken back to be served to veterans at the Indianapolis domiciliary who couldn’t attend.
“It was a very wonderful opportunity to give back,” Gaudin said.