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Transitioning Veterans into the Civilian Sector

Published on June 28th, 2016

When Marine Corps veteran Hector Cardona heard about a sailing clinic designed to assist veterans as they transition to civilian life, he said he couldn’t sign up quickly enough, even though he had never sailed.

Cardona was among eight veterans, transitioning service members and wounded warriors who participated in the nonprofit Valhalla Sailing Project’s first two-day clinic to teach veterans the fundamentals of sailing and racing, held June 25-26 at Annapolis Sailing School on the Chesapeake Bay.

Losing Friends to Suicide
“I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide,” Cardona said, explaining that he came to the sailing clinic in his quest to find activities veterans can learn to do together.

It’s difficult for veterans to re-enter the civilian sector when the one relationship they crave is missing: the brotherhood of their battle buddies, said Marine Corps combat veteran Mike Wood, Valhalla’s executive director.

Valhalla assists military veterans by filling the need for a squad atmosphere through formations of four-person crews to sail and race as teams, Wood said, noting the organization is operated by combat veterans who are sailboat racers.

Wood said he believes the veteran suicide rate is a reflection of that missing squad system. “We hope to get them back in a core group,” he said of Valhalla’s goal to put veterans in the integrated teamwork and social atmosphere of sailing.

Learning to sail and race as a crew member, Wood said, prompts similar emotions service members experience as members of the military’s brotherhood in arms. “You rely on each other [in battle],” he said. “With sailing, everyone has a job … and you have to know everyone’s job if you have to step in as needed. And you learn to excel.”

And as with military missions, sailing success is based on communication and being able to predict each crew member’s actions to “execute the job successfully, which almost mirrors a squad,” he said.

“It also gives them names in their Rolodex to call” when something in life goes awry, Wood added. The organization, he said, is developing crews to keep veterans together to build the core structure and camaraderie they’re so used to relying upon.

As new members are introduced to the clinic, Wood said, the veteran-sailor crews will mentor the new recruits. Sailing is a year-round activity, and racing begins in the fall when the wind picks up, he added.

‘Dialed Into Perfection’
“With repetition come the pursuit of perfection,” Wood said. “Service members are dialed into perfection. They figure out what went wrong and fix the problem for the next mission.”

Cardona said he related to feeling alone without his squad, and he, too, emphasized the importance of “knowing your role so you do it automatically and successfully.”

After a brief introductory classroom session, the veterans gathered into two groups of four-person crews, and with an instructor on both sailboats, all eight veterans — experienced or not — took the helm while their new crewmates fell into position and assumed other duties in first morning session.

Honing Sailing Skills
Following a barbecue social with 30 volunteers and Valhalla staff, the crews gathered for more class instruction and were back on the water, honing skills quickly.

“By the end of the clinic, it was like these vets have been sailing together for years,” Wood said in a Facebook post. “The bonding, camaraderie and skill they displayed was astounding. To top it off, some of the vets have secured spots on race boats in Annapolis!”

Wood said he was proud of what the veterans accomplished in just two days.

“And I am beyond excited to hear that they all want to continue building their skills and become one of the premier racing crews in the area,” he added.

Source: Department of Defense

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