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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Sailing program charts a positive course

A Veteran on the front of the sailboat

In addition to learning how to sail, the program with the Milwaukee Yacht Club helps Veterans set aside other issues - even for a couple hours.

By Jim Hoehn
Friday, July 20, 2018
With one hand firmly on the tiller, Mark Duran is the picture of concentration, intently focused on an approaching boat, while also processing the constant commands of the instructor -- delivered in unfamiliar nautical jargon.  

Despite the pressure of being a sailing novice, Duran couldn’t be more at ease.

Duran, an Army Veteran who was wounded on his first tour in Afghanistan, is among a group of Veterans learning to sail as part of program between the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and the Milwaukee Yacht Club.

“It takes your mind off the stuff that might be bothering you or worrying, or the pain issues might go away just for a little bit while you’re out here,” said Duran. “It’s like giving yourself a gift.”

The group meets once a week in the evening, learning basic sailing terminology and techniques, and then working together as a crew for a couple hours out on Lake Michigan.

“It provides a sense of purpose,” Duran said. “It’s something to look forward to, and this is what I look forward to every week.”

A veteran steers the boat through the harbor

Mark Duran, an Army Veteran wounded in Afghanistan, guides the boat through the harbor.

The Milwaukee Yacht Club offers a sailing program to Veterans receiving mental health care, said Courtney Zeller, a recreation therapist at the Milwaukee VA.

“It’s a great way for Veterans to get out on the water and to forget everything that they’re going through and focus their mind on something positive,” Zeller said. “It’s a great way to build camaraderie. They need to work as team, communicate with each other and all those skills can carry over to their everyday life.”

Duran was among four Veterans on one boat under the enthusiastic guidance of Sam House, a professional sailor and coach. Another group of Vets was out on a second boat.

On this night, the boats take advantage of a steady wind to cut rapidly through the harbor against the backdrop of the downtown Milwaukee skyline. As the bow knifes through the water, House calmly offers a steady stream of instructions on which lines to pull, how to watch the wind indicators, where to stash the winch handle and how to quickly react to the subtle changes of sailing.

A veteran prepares to put up the sail

Proper technique, terminology and safety are all part of the sailing instruction.

“They’re great. It’s just so much fun. I absolutely love it,” said House, whose father is a Marine Veteran. “But, they’re here to learn, 100 percent. They’re no different than any other group of people I’ve been on boats with, because the whole time, people are just happy.”

Photo Gallery - View more photos from the Veterans sailing program in our flickr album

Christy Ward, a 41-year-old Navy Veteran, was the only female at the class that evening.

“Sailing, just being on the water, feels free. Working with the other Veterans, learning the lines, it’s great,” Ward said. “The weather’s great, the sun was out shining on the water, the waves -- it was wonderful.”

Participating in the eight-week course also allows volunteer opportunities for the Veterans to continue sailing with the race crew committee on other nights, Zeller said.

Duran said he hopes to put his growing set of sailing skills to an important future use.

“My mom grew up sailing, racing,” he said. “We’re finally in a place where sailing can be an opportunity for both of us. This is an opportunity for me to learn so we can sail together.”


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