At the Manasquan Reservoir, heroes are on the water.
“Freedom is never free. These folks behind you bought and paid for it for you. The least I can do is come out and help them go fishing for the day,” said South Jersey Coordinator Eric Chamberlain.
Launched in 2007, Heroes on the Water is a national organization with more than 80 chapters throughout the country. The goal? To help veterans, active duty military and their families relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate through the outdoors and kayak fishing. The nonprofit provides participants with the kayaks and all the gear for the day at no cost. Corporate and private donations are used to purchase the equipment.
“It is absolutely incredible when you have someone tell you, ‘This is the most fun I’ve had in years,'” Chamberlain said. “‘This is the most relaxed I’ve been since I came back from Vietnam.’ To have someone tell you, ‘I was ready to take my own life until I got involved in the program like this.'”
“It virtually saved my life from when I attended my first event until now,” said Navy veteran Sean Stewart. “This is just peace and solitude here cause I have PTSD and I don’t sleep that well so having things like this to look to, last night was a better night then a lot nights.”
Veteran James Davis served in Vietnam.
“I took advantage of everything Southeast Asia had to offer me. I got shot, I got shrapnel, I got malaria and I got typhus,” he said.
Davis also battles with PTSD and says his time fishing on the water helps him cope.
“It’s so peaceful out there that you can just let everything go. You’re talking to other vets and a lot of the times you don’t have to say anything and there’s a look that’s exchanged so it makes you feel normal I think,” he said.
On fishing trips, participants are paired with volunteers who help guide them throughout the day.
“I couldn’t be a veteran so this is my way of helping veterans and I get a heck of a lot of satisfaction out of it. It’s funny, when I get home from this my wife will say you look good, you feel good,” said volunteer Tom Kerrigan.
“Quite frankly, the most enjoyable thing is when someone catches their first fish ever,” said volunteer Rory Lay.
“It makes me happy, makes me proud to be able to still serve. Yes, I retired from the military but this is one way I can still serve and that I can still continue on,” said Chamberlain.
Heroes on the Water New Jersey Chapter typically has more than 20 events throughout the summer statewide. The nonprofit continues to schedule activities throughout the year. During the fall, winter and spring they coordinate CPR and kayak self-rescue classes, fly tying and lure building. It’s always free to participants.
“It gave me a new way of looking forward to life and doing things beyond the norm,” said Stewart.
The chapter leaders insist these service members and veterans should do just that — look forward to life and their fishing trips.