Veterans on Deck

A nonprofit sailing group offers a lifeline to soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder
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Caithness was donated to the program in 2018.

Caithness was donated to the program in 2018.

Eight years ago, Ron Acierno realized he needed a new method to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Through therapy, we were getting rid of the PTSD symptoms,” says Acierno, a clinical director at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. “But we couldn’t get the vets to reintegrate into the community.”

The vets had to get out of their houses and into situations that were uncomfortable. “It had to be something that was scary and fun,” he says.

Vets and volunteers having fun aboard DD 214

Vets and volunteers having fun aboard DD 214

Acierno’s sailboat was in the marina across from the medical center, so he took one of his patients sailing.

“Most people have never gone sailing,” Acierno says. “It’s a little bit scary at first, but in life, you don’t avoid stress. You have to deal with it.”

DD 214 in close quarters with Caithness

DD 214 in close quarters with Caithness

On the boat, veterans couldn’t walk away from the stress. They had to work together, be social and sail the boat to get back home. Soon, a nonprofit organization was formed, someone donated a boat, a marina provided a slip and captains volunteered.

Today, Veterans on Deck (VOD) owns two sailboats and takes vets sailing five days a week, 50 weeks a year. The Veterans Administration tells vets about the program, and participation is voluntary. “It’s not a substitute for counseling,” Acierno says. “It complements it.”

The goal of the program is to reintegrate the vets, without pressure. If someone needs space, they can get it.

The goal of the program is to reintegrate the vets, without pressure. If someone needs space, they can get it.

Greg Conners was a captain in the U.S. Air Force who served one tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. After leaving the service in 2014, he moved to Charleston and struggled on some days to leave his house.

“It’s so low-key,” he says of the sailing program. “I had never sailed before. You can just go for a ride. Nobody pushes you into anything, and the people are fantastic. It’s freeing.”

Ed Venere, a Vietnam-era Army vet who is the group’s chief operating officer, says the idea is to eliminate obstacles for the veterans. “We don’t have a reservation system,” he says. “The vets just walk up, and we ask them about their military service. We don’t ask for proof, and we don’t charge.”

Rob Atkinson (at the helm) takes a World War II vet for a spin aboard Caithness

Rob Atkinson (at the helm) takes a World War II vet for a spin aboard Caithness

“We try to remove that fear of socializing,” he adds. “They’re on a boat with people who are all like them. That’s a comfortable environment for them. We’re fortunate to have at least a half dozen volunteers who are so committed, they’d stand on their heads to make it happen.”

Rob Atkinson, who served in the U.S. Navy and retired after a career in the marine industry, volunteers as a skipper for the all-men’s sail on Tuesdays. On Thursdays he maintains the group’s boats. One of them is Caithness, a 29-foot Thomas Gillmer ketch that Atkinson’s father donated to the program in 2018. The other is a cold-molded, 31-foot Wylie sloop, a descendant of the Tom Wylie-designed Gemini Twins that raced on San Francisco Bay.

When Atkinson joined the group, the Wylie had not been out of the water in four years and suffered from leaks and deck rot. He and a volunteer workforce made repairs, gave her a new paint job and relaunched her. They rechristened her DD 214, after the document all veterans    receive upon discharge from the military.

“It takes all of us pulling together to sail the boats and create the experience,” says Atkinson, who also serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors. “I feel like we are making a difference for the veterans who join us, and it benefits those without PTSD too.”

Venere recalls one Afghanistan vet who, for three days, watched from a distance as the group gathered for daily sails. A counselor at the Veterans Administration had told him the program might help him.

“I went over to him and said, ‘Are you here for VOD?’” Venere recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about it, but would you mind backing up a bit?’ On the fourth day, he came over and talked to us. On the fifth visit, he got on the boat. Before the two hours was over, we couldn’t get him to stop talking. He was so isolated, but he came alive.

“For me,” Venere says, “that was the ultimate.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.