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Veterans paddle to raise awareness for mental health

Bainbridge Island Review - 7/28/2021

Armed Forces veterans know what it means to face a challenge head-on. They know what it means to push themselves to their physical limits. And, unfortunately, they are also aware of the difficulties many veterans face after leaving the service.

A group of local veterans have set out to help make post-service life a little better for their brothers-in-arms.

Last month, a group of seven Marines and one Navy and Coast Guard pilot, including three who reside on Bainbridge Island, took to the sea to complete the first 50K Warrior Paddle around the island. Their goal is to turn the endurance test into an annual event that will raise awareness for veteran mental health.

But before putting on a large public event, the group decided to first try it themselves.

"It was, 'Let's go out and do this ourselves,' " said organizer Ryan Hough, one of the BI residents in the crew. "Let's do this first, and then let's create an annual paddle Bainbridge event to create awareness for veteran mental health, and to have that great camaraderie and great experience."

The paddle took eight-and-a-half hours as the men entered the water from Crystal Springs at about 5:30 a.m. It was a race against time to get through Agate Pass before the tides turned against them, but they made it and reached Fay Beach around 9:15 a.m. The adventure was (relatively) easier from there as the tide pushed them forward, getting past Pritchard Park and Eagle Harbor. Rich Passage was another tricky section, but they made it through and finished at about 2 p.m.

Working together to navigate tough seas reminded the veterans of how they used to band together in tough times to serve their objective, providing camaraderie they missed.

"It's a great group," said Dan Dinsmore, a Seattle native who recently moved to BI. "[It's] a bunch of crazy guys willing to throw down and do something really hard so that other people's lives might be a little easier, which is how they're built."

Hough described the journey as an "epic adventure," on water as clear as glass. The group encountered plenty of wildlife, such as seals, dolphins and bald eagles. The early calm contrasted with the nerve-wracking trip through Agate Pass.

"We all started paddling as hard as we could," Hough said. "At full tide we'd be going backwards."

The Marines had a former gunny in their safety boat in case someone needed to be pulled out and had an experienced paddler in their group, BI resident Matt Kress, who has spent years in the waters of the Puget Sound and has paddled up and down the West Coast.

"We were really strategic about timing the tides," Kress said. "We know you do not want to mess with being on the wrong side of the tides in certain places on the island."

Serving a purpose

The U.S. still has a long way to go when it comes to treating mental health properly, especially among its veterans, as some continue to struggle once they leave their military service. Out of the 46,510 adults who died from suicide in 2018, 6,435 were veterans, according to a report from Veterans Affairs. In 2017, veterans constituted 14.1% of all adult suicides despite representing 8.1% of the population.

Although there are financial barriers to getting help, the largest obstacle remains the shame. "There's still way too much stigma about seeking mental health support," Kress said. "It's just who we are as a society."

Dinsmore noted that the situation has gotten better for younger veterans leaving the service in the past 10 to 15 years as more organizations have popped up as a response to the issue. Dinsmore said there were a number of groups that reached out to him once he left the Marines to offer help, whether it was with a career transition or to offer mental health services.

This local group believes it must continue to answer the call to help their brethren.

"Anytime a group of veterans can raise awareness for mental health, it's kind of an easy answer," Dinsmore said. "Twenty-seven miles of paddling seems like a long way until you're helping out your buddies, then it's a no-brainer."

Warrior Paddle is the perfect event, as Kress noted a generational shift that has seen younger veterans pursue social groups revolving around an active lifestyle that provides a similar level of camaraderie experienced in the Armed Forces.

Hough said he had a vision of creating an event that was a long enough distance to be intimidating, but also capture the imagination and create something folks will want to accomplish. Future Warrior Paddles will also have various points at which people of all fitness levels and abilities can pull out, in order to open it up to as many participants as possible.

"If you get a bunch of people willing to go out there and do that and not of the mindset we were, you need to make it a safe event," Hough said.