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JEFF KNAPP: Group puts wounded vets on water

by JEFF KNAPP sports@indianagazette.net on October 01, 2013 10:40 AM

The Western Pennsylvania Chapter of Heroes on the Water — whose mission is to provide wounded veterans with the opportunity to enjoy kayak fishing — recently held its third event at Yellow Creek State Park.

Heroes on the Water, a nonprofit organization based in Allen, Texas, was created at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2007. The group has 43 locations in 23 states.

The activity of fishing from a kayak has become increasingly popular in recent years, blending a prevalent form of boating recreation into an effective angling platform. Most kayak makers include models specifically designed for fishing, stable craft with interiors created with the angler in mind.

According to coordinator Josh Edminston, the Western Pennsylvania chapter was founded in February of this year. In addition to Edminston, the leadership team consists of Wayne Tu, Noah Heck and Nikki Edminston. Prior outings took place at Conemaugh River Lake and Keystone State Park.

“We provide kayak fishing outings for wounded veterans that are both physically and mentally therapeutic,” explained Edminston. “The outings are also beneficial for their family members, as this allows for sharing time on the water and outdoors and learning a new sport. We provide basic fishing and paddling instruction and have on-the-water guides to help get our participants comfortable.”

Edminston said the group’s kayak fishing sessions allow the participants the chance to decompress from the stresses of combat as well as the physical rigors of rehabilitation.

“Kayak fishing is in itself therapeutic, both mentally and physically,” Edminston noted. “There’s not just the fishing, but the paddling, and just enjoying the outdoors. Most participants have little prior experience, so they are learning a new sport. And there’s the simplicity. All you need is a kayak, paddle and fishing gear.”

Jeremy Berkheimer, of Altoona, was an active sportsman prior to his service. He welcomed getting back in the outdoors upon his return home. Kayak fishing has been an important part of that process.

“I was first introduced to kayaks through the Wounded Warrior Project,” said Berkheimer, whose service in the Army’s Infantry Division included a 2005 deployment in Iraq. “From that I discovered I was pretty good in a kayak. So I got in contact with the Heroes on the Water program. It’s a great group of guys. I really enjoy it.”

Berkheimer strongly recommends the Heroes on the Water program to other veterans.

“This is a great idea on a lot of different levels,” Berkheimer said. “It’s something relaxing that’s not in the bar scene, which a lot of guys get wrapped up in, which is no good. It’s social, healthy and outdoors. Most guys like activities like that.”

Fred Nielen, of Lower Burrell, did most of his bass fishing from a larger boat, but then got interested in kayak fishing.

During his kayak-shopping efforts he was made aware of the Heroes on the Water program. He made contact with the Western Pennsylvania chapter, and now not only attends the events, but assists with them as well.

“Compared to the boat fishing I’d done previously, I find the kayak fishing more peaceful and relaxing,” said Nielen, whose service with the Marine’s 1st Division included a 1970 deployment in Vietnam. “I can go out by myself, and also fish some of the smaller lakes that I couldn’t when I had a boat. It’s definitely something I’d recommend to others. There’s a lot of camaraderie being with other vets.”

Nielsen noted that servicemen and -women interested in kayak fishing need not be concerned with any lack of previous experience or shortage of tackle.

“It’s a day when they can get out with the kayaks we have there,” Nielsen said. “If they enjoy it, they can join the organization. It’s safe. We shadow the guys when they are out on the water. We are with them. All they have to have is a fishing license. We provide everything else.”

Edminston said HOW’s outings and activities are dependent on donations and volunteers, and that the Western Pennsylvania chapter is always eager to accept such assistance.

“The majority of the current volunteers are members of Kayak Anglers of Western PA,” Edminston noted. “The club makes donations from each tournament event to HOW Western PA. They have been a huge force in growing the chapter.”

Additional information on Heroes on the Water’s local chapter can be found by visiting the website heroes onthewater.org/Chapters/Western PA_Chapter; or email western pa@heroesonthewater.org.

Edminston can be reached at (814) 243-4413.

PHOTO: Wayne Tu set out in a kayak during the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of Heroes on the Water outing at Yellow Creek State Park on Saturday.

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