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For vets, a therapeutic benefit of boats and boatbuilding

They call him Doc. Not for what he does now, but for what once was his occupation: flying helicopter search-and-rescue missions as a hospital corpsman and fleet marine medic.

Military veteran Jon Ferguson is reaching out to other vets to share the therapeutic benefits of boats and boatbuilding.

Jon “Doc Ferg” Ferguson, 53, served for 14 years in such places as Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Adak, Alaska; Point Mugu, California; Whidbey Island, Washington; and Iwakuni, Japan. In 1990 and ’91 he was deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, performing medical evacuations of U.S. and coalition forces, as well as enemy POWs. He received his Combat Aircrew Wings and a letter from the Secretary of the Navy for exceptional performance.

Ferguson is one of many U.S. veterans who served their country by doing difficult and ugly stuff. Stuff that he and his fellow soldiers don’t like to talk about and that will haunt some of them for the rest of their lives. Estimates are that nearly every hour of every day, one U.S. vet commits suicide. Ferguson vows to do his level best to save from this fate as many as he can. And he’s calling boats for backup.

Demons of PTSD and TBI

When I first met Doc, last summer, he was getting ready to graduate from the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Washington, where approximately 60 students are enrolled in a rigorous one-year boatbuilding curriculum. About a dozen of them are veterans, and they use the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for tuition.

The place is quaint — without the cachet of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, or Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut — but to Ferguson it’s synonymous with revelation and salvation. Becoming a boatbuilder is not just a career choice for him, but also a journey to new horizons, intellectually and emotionally.

Building boats can be therapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Such injuries can occur on the playground, in car crashes, on the football field or the battlefield, but also frequently during field exercises, says Ferguson, who’s also trained in trauma-related psychology and has two dozen years of field experience. And then there’s the military mindset: “The mission is, get the mission done,” he says. “Your buddies count on you.” Rest and recovery is for wimps, consequences be damned.

Growing up in California and the Midwest, Ferguson says he experienced poverty and the effects of alcoholism. To him, and to many others, the military offered a promising path. It gave him a job, an education, purpose and the hope to build a better life. But when he got out he found himself in a different world with different rules and people indifferent to the issues vets grapple with. “You won’t succeed fighting the animal — you are who you are,” Ferguson says. “But if you can learn to live with that animal, it softens the edges.”

Watching him cut planks at the band saw, he is the picture of concentration, but also a man at ease with his surroundings and colleagues, who include fellow students Gordon McGill, 55, Tatyana Faledo Nolan, 19, and Jo Abeli, 26. It is an intergenerational crew that has been working on the rebuild of a little sloop called Felicity Ann, the 23-footer that Ann Davison sailed across the Atlantic single-handed, becoming the first woman to do so, in 1953.

Ferguson has no significant boating experience to speak of, except for two summers working on a small fishing boat with his uncle out of Morro Bay, California. I asked him what he likes about working with wood. “I’m not sure why, but when I am in the shop working on a piece, the constant barrage of memories seems to fade a bit, and my mind can rest,” he says. “I sense that the wood was once a living being and that perhaps I can help it to live again. I just go with the flow. And if it makes you feel good, why not do it, right?”

Using boats to connect with others

Boats such as this handy centerboard sloop, built at the school, are what Ferguson has in mind to take fellow veterans sailing.

Not all veterans are as lucky, though. “Physical disabilities, cognitive issues, emotional problems ­— it’s complicated what they are dealing with,” says Rita Frangione, who runs Vet Connect, a non-profit outreach program and an initiative of the Olympic Community Action Programs.

Frangione worked at the Veterans Administration for 10 years as a vocational rehabilitation counselor before retiring, so she speaks from experience. “It’s more difficult for vets to transition out of the military than for civilians to join it,” she says, adding that she’d like to see more programs offered with a low risk of failure because socialization and assimilation into society are huge challenges for individuals who are used to having things laid out for them, military style. “It falls to the communities to support them with this transition.”

And that’s where Capt. Wayne Chimenti comes in, with his Community Boat Project. Chimenti, who lives on nearby Marrowstone Island, traveled the globe on all kinds of sailing vessels, including schooners and tall ships. He’s a Master Mariner with a 1,600-ton license, a rigger, a sailmaker and a marine biologist. And he loves to talk and teach. In his colorful shop, Chimenti runs the equally colorful Community Boat Program, which is connected to the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding and teaches local high school students boatbuilding and maintenance skills while giving them an education in maritime culture and training for voyaging on longboats around Puget Sound.

“Working with wood has therapeutic effects, but there has to be an on-the-water component with sailing and rowing, too, so these guys can bond,” Chimenti says.

He and Ferguson are putting together an outreach program to ease vets back into civilian life with the help of boats that the Community Boat Project, the school or alumni own. It has to be safe and fun and a shared experience, Ferguson notes. “Boating is a bit like being in the military,” he says. “You have to help each other to accomplish the mission of a safe passage, no matter what you do — steering, trimming or helping to maintain the boat.” And because he once wore the same uniform, Ferguson has cred among fellow vets.

Getting support to give support

It will take someone like Ferguson to act as connector, coordinator and counselor to engage folks whose defining option in life wasn’t “paper or plastic” but “kill or be killed.” They were trained to keep their guard up and to fend for themselves. It’s how they survived the battles of Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Kandahar and Tora Bora. It’s how they fulfilled their part of the contract.

Now that they are out, the shoe is on the other foot. They stand to receive benefits, including medical care, education and job training. But here’s the rub. “The bureaucracy can be extremely frustrating, especially in underserved rural areas,” says Frangione. “Having to travel and making appointments in various locations can be very difficult for some, logistically and financially.” It can be enough to drive them into isolation and into the woods, which is where Ferguson wants to track them down with an invite for a spin on a boat without any obligation except to have fun, relax and enjoy.

At least that’s the theory. To turn it into reality, a few more things will have to happen, funding being one of them. “It’s a synergistic project the school plans to support by donating space and students as volunteers,” says Betsy Davis, executive director of the NWSWB. “We don’t intend to set up another building program, but we’d like to help vets get the support they need.”

Outreach initiatives such as Vet Connect have a place in these deliberations, as does the Wounded Warrior Project, which issues grants for organizations serving veterans with programs designed to improve mental health, physical fitness and economic independence. Davis says the school also is looking into applying for the Partners for Veteran Supportive Campuses Certificate issued by the state to post-secondary education and training programs that support and assist veterans.

All of this is music to Ferguson’s ears because these prospects promise to fuse his past as a combat veteran and trained medical professional with his newfound passion as a boatwright and his status as a peer for others who are trying to find their footing in civilian life. “What I miss most about my military life is the camaraderie, the ground effort, having a mission and having everyone move it along and accomplishing it together,” he says in a YouTube video. “That’s absolutely what happens here at the boat school. Since I’ve been here I’ve not had one instance when my heart’s been racing and I felt like I was out of place.”

As a medic, he has seen the horrors of combat. “Just because you’re out of the military does not mean that stuff goes away,” he says. “It doesn’t. About the only thing you can do is change the way you react to it.”

And showing other vets a good time while messing about in boats, Doc hopes, is going to be the trick that will encourage them to give it a try so they, too, might learn to live with that animal.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.