Hope floats: Vets to launch boat they built - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Hope floats: Vets to launch boat they built

Vets put finishing touches on boat

Veterans Ron Schneider, left, and Jimmy Clifford apply varnish to the 14-foot sailboat they helped build as part of their participation in the recreation therapy program at the Milwaukee VA.

By David Walter
Friday, June 11, 2021

Veterans will be sailing into the sunset – literally – on June 17.

That’s the launch date for the 14-foot sailboat named Patriot that Veterans built over the past 1½ years as part of their outpatient therapy.

The boat-building project is part of the recreation therapy program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

But the benefits go beyond a little time on the water.

sailboat start
Early construction of the sailboat is shown.

“It’s all part of the healing process,” said Jeff Peterson, a U.S. Navy Veteran of the Vietnam War. He has been involved with recreation therapy since 2013 to aid his recovery from PTSD. He’s worked on the boat projects since their inception.

“It’s been really great,” he said. “The camaraderie is outstanding, and it’s a way to expand your horizons while doing something therapeutic.”

U.S. Army Veteran Jimmy Clifford agreed.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “It is nothing but a positive experience.”

Clifford was treated for alcoholism at the Milwaukee VA about a year ago and started recreation therapy as part of his rehabilitation.

“It keeps me busy,” he said. “It keeps me focused on something besides sitting at home and thinking about alcohol.”

The boat-building project began about four years ago when the Milwaukee VA teamed up with All Hands Boatworks, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization that hosts boat-building activities, mostly for youth groups.

sailboat mast
The mast and rudder for the sailboat sit in the foreground while finishing touches are put on the boat in the background.

“It can be transformational for people working around a boat project,” All Hands Boatworks founder Bill Nimke said in 2018. “But, it’s the lessons learned. How can we take what we’re doing together and apply it? What relevance does it have maybe in the rest of our life? It ranges from learning new tool skills to working more cooperatively with a group.”

HUD-VASH recreation therapist Courtney Zeller helped launch the activity and has seen it continue to grow, as more Veterans cycle in and out and the boats get progressively bigger.

The latest boat, known as a Caravelle skiff, is the biggest one yet. It is a rowing and sailing dory-skiff able to accommodate one or two occupants.

“We saw that the Veterans really enjoyed it and benefited from it, so we progressed to building a small boat, then bigger and bigger,” she said.

“The huge benefit I see is that it involves a lot of collaboration, working together and then brainstorming to come up with different ideas -- and having something they can see as an end goal.”

Working on the sail for the sailboat

Paul Bargren, center, a volunteer with All Hands Boatworks, works with Veteran Jeff Peterson, right, and recreation therapist Courtney Zeller as they work to complete the sail for the boat Veterans built.

The Veterans meet once a week to work on the boat. During last week’s session, the finishing touches were taking place – while some applied varnish to the boat, others worked on sewing the red, white and blue sail.

The work was accompanied by laughter and conversation, with the Veterans joking with one another.

“The Veterans enjoy working on it, and they enjoy being together,” said Paul Bargren, a volunteer at All Hands Boatworks. “I really enjoy meeting and working with the Veterans.”

The boat was made from a kit, and kit designer Clint Chase came to Milwaukee from New England a few weeks ago to see the progress.

“This is the first one of this model that has been completed,” Zeller said.

Most of the Veterans involved have some woodworking experience, but it’s not required; in fact learning new skills is part of the program’s purpose.

“This is great,” said Ron Schneider, a U.S. Army Veteran who served in Vietnam. “I’m a novice woodworker, so this is an adventure. It was an experiment, but I learned a lot.”

complete sailboat
Veterans stand with the completed sailboat.

Zeller agreed.

“It gives them access to some of the different skills that they have used in the past, and they get to use these skills toward doing this project, which is exciting,” she said.

In all, nearly a dozen Veterans and about half a dozen volunteers from All Hands Boatworks worked on the project. They logged 90 to 100 hours to complete the boat.

All of the Veterans’ work will culminate the evening of June 17 when the boat is launched with the help of the Milwaukee Yacht Club.

After that, it will continue to be used as part of the recreation therapy program’s sailing/boating group.

“It's a wonderful boat,” Bargren said. “(The Veterans) are really excited about the boat and sailing it soon. It will be really nice.”

UPDATE: Check out the video from the launch event:


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