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When Fishing Is About More than the Fish

Heroes on the Water Central Florida Chapter

The number of Gulf War era veterans is growing as is the list of non-profit organizations formed to help returning service members.

Heroes on the Water is a top-rated, all-volunteer non-profit organization formed specifically to provide free therapeutic recreation to veterans of all eras, active-duty military and their families.

Florida has seven chapters many of which offer events year round.

  1. Central Florida Chapter

  2. Emerald Coast Chapter

  3. Northeast Florida Chapter

  4. Sarasota/Bradenton Chapter

  5. Space Coast Chapter

  6. South Florida Chapter

  7. Southwest Florida Chapter

Just a week ago, the Central Florida Chapter hosted veterans and their families on Lake Jackson in Osceola County. While chapters like New Jersey's pack in a large number of fishing trips during the summer months.
The idea behind Heroes on the Water is simple in theory and application. It only requires a kayak, fishing gear and a volunteer fishing coach to get a wounded veteran or stressed-out service member on the water.

Credit Heroes on the Water Central Florida Chapter / Facebook
The Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water hosted an outing for veterans and their families December 2014 on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

“Putting them as close to nature as possible, there’s a tranquil effect,” said Tom Welgos, the Eastern United States operations coordinator for Heroes on the Water.

“I like to use Henry David Thoreau’s comment on fishing that: ‘Men spend their whole life fishing only to find out it wasn’t about the fish.’ And by putting them into a peaceful, outdoor environment, we start to see that stress level drop by allowing them to go out and fish they kind of take their minds off day to day problems.”

Welgos is a veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was actually a fishing guide that offered free trips to wounded service members, but had few takers. He says that’s because fishing tours on a motorboat do provide the peace offered by kayak fishing.

The quiet solitude of his first kayak fishing trip was such a revelation for Welgos that he started volunteering for Heroes on the Water.

Credit Heroes on the Water Central Florida Chapter / Facebook
A view of Lake Jackson as volunteers and veterans paddle out to fish during the December 2014 outing hosted by Heroes on the Water Central Florida Chapter.

“The realization was that when we put these guys in kayaks and they have to use their body to power this kayak and are selecting the fishing areas with the help of a coach and they’re determining when they come back in, that we’re actually knocking down the overall stress, avoidance behavior and hyper vigilance,” Welgos said.

Their free outings get injured veterans out of their hospital settings and offer quiet retreats to returning active duty service members. Their events are open to veterans of all eras and as well as their families.

He said the organization is all volunteer and many of them have never served in the military. Welgos said that’s the beauty of the program, it gives civilians a chance to give back to those who have served.

Credit Heroes on the Water Central Florida Chapter / Facebook
Heroes on the Water chapters like Central Florida provide all the equipment and even a free lunch for any veteran, active-duty military and their family members interested in kayak fishing.

“They (civilians) are passionate about this cause because it’s not a fishing club or a kayaking club it is a cause,” Welgos said.

This January, Heroes on the Water will train 35 more volunteer, leadership teams that have already been selected and vetted. Welgos said by late spring, the organization will double in size to 70 chapters across the United States as well as affiliate chapters in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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