Wake for Warriors: Fostering Veteran Community, Confidence, and Healing on the Water

Wake for Warriors: Fostering Veteran Community, Confidence, and Healing on the Water

In 2016, after over 30 years of active and reserve duty flying the Bell AH-1 Super Cobra, Dave Deep retired from the Marine Corps. Now the commercial pilot is the “everything man” for Wake for Warriors, an all-volunteer nonprofit that brings together groups of veterans to enjoy watersports, and forge lifelong connections.

Between 2003 and 2005, when Deep was deployed to Afghanistan, one of his missions involved escorting medevac helicopters. The pilots regularly visited the wounded in the hospital. “Seeing these young kids injured,” Deep said, “compelled [him] to do something.”

After Deep returned to the U.S., he found that his own deployment had “changed [him] forever.” What helped him to “recover and settle” was getting out on the water. “When you’re not having such a great day and you get behind the boat, you can kind of forget about everything else and relax and enjoy. It’s a respite for me, and I knew it would be the same for just about anybody else…the water has that natural calming effect.”

To help bring that same healing to other veterans, Deep created Wake for Warriors in 2012. The organization “started slow,” but it has “grown exponentially.” Now the organization enjoys partnerships with watersports industry companies like Nautique, Hyperlite, and SeaDek, as well as Camp Southern Ground and veteran service organizations including EOD Warrior Foundation, Operation Healing Forces, and Semper Fi & America’s Fund.

Wake for Warriors’ Nautique boat in Lake Olympia, Fla. October 2020. (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

While finalizing plans for an action-packed ninth season, Deep spoke to the Freedom Hill Press about how his organization helps veterans and military families, and how his team overcame the limitations of a global pandemic. He also gave us a glimpse of the magic that happens when groups of veterans gather together to learn new skills on the water.

Wake for Warriors’ Concept

Wake for Warriors generally hosts more than 20 events during a nine-month season, which begins in March in warmer locales like south Florida, and ends in November. Three-day events typically begin on a Thursday afternoon, and end at midday on Sunday. On any given weekend, between eight and 20 veterans or family members participate, and Wake for Warriors and other donors cover all expenses, including meals, lodgings, gear, and travel.

The specifics of each event vary by locale. At some locations, veterans stay in hotels, but in others, like events hosted at Deep’s own Lake Harding, Ala. home, neighbors offer veterans rooms in their own houses. Some meals are brought in from restaurants, while others are home cooked by local supporters. Individuals sometimes donate their own boats for the organization to use, and Nautique allows Wake for Warriors to use one of its own boats for many events.

Wake for Warriors now has a number of teams around the country, as well as established destinations that the group returns to each year. Deep has to maintain a spreadsheet to ensure that all his riders’ needs are covered, but he emphasizes that, during events, Wake for Warriors is “not crazily focused on schedule. You’re there to relax and if your idea of relaxing is sitting on the dock and reading a book, great. That’s what you should do…We don’t want people to feel like they’re going to work.”

Wake for Warriors rider Kegan (US Navy) wakesurfs in Lake Olympia, Fla. October 2020. (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

Wake for Warriors’ Participants

Since the skills required on the water are “pretty physical,” Wake for Warriors participants are typically from the post-9/11 era. Each comes to the organization with a unique story.

Some participants have lost limbs during their service, while others are wheelchair-bound. Participants’ wounds are not always visible. Some are dealing with post-traumatic stress. Others have traumatic brain injuries, and have been through blasts that left their bodies littered with shrapnel. A participant during the most recent season had broken multiple bones and a brain injury while ejecting from a fighter jet going nearly the speed of sound. (For more of Kegan’s story, see Wake for Warriors’ video here.)

One Wake for Warriors rider, Mike Nelson, who can no longer see after his Army service, showed particular promise on the water. After training with Wake for Warriors during the 2019 season, he participated in the 2019 Wakesurf Nationals and Wakesurf Masters. Nelson won the Wakesurf Masters for his division.

Mike (US Army), left, and Carter (US Army), right after competing in the 2020 Wakesurf Masters in Ga. 2020. (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

No matter their circumstances, Deep’s team can provide equipment and training for veterans with a variety of adaptive needs.

Just about 90 percent of the veterans who come to Wake for Warriors have no prior experience with watersports. After two and a half days on the water, they have new skills and confidence. More importantly, after three days with their fellow riders, they have enduring friendships that become part of their life story.

Wake for Warriors rider Ryan (US Army) and professional wakesurfer Jodie Grassman shred at Lake Olympia, Fla. October 2020 (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

Enter Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic nearly obliterated Wake for Warriors’ 2020 season. Between April and June, every event was cancelled or postponed. Several later events in states with lengthy quarantining procedures became impossible to host. For a time, Wake for Warriors considered throwing in the towel on the year.

What propelled the Wake for Warriors team forward was the knowledge that “veterans probably more than others need connection.” While other veteran service organizations were trying to provide that community virtually, a virtual environment wouldn’t suffice for Wake for Warriors.

After looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for running a camp, Wake for Warriors put together a committee that made plans for safely doing everything from serving food and providing lodging for participants.

Wake for Warriors was able to salvage its season, putting on 10 events.

2020 marked the first time that Wake for Warriors worked with Gold Star Family members, the immediate relatives of those who have lost their lives during conflict. Hosted in partnership with the EOD Warrior Foundation, the 17-person event included a number of younger children. Since Wake for Warriors’ typical participant is in their 20s and 30s, and “wants to get up in the morning and ride all day ‘til lunch and ride all day ‘til dinner,” the organization came up with creative ways to adjust for downtime and make the event special and fun for a new audience.

 

Gold Star Family member on the water in Lake Harding, Ala. September 2020. (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

Gold Star Family member on the water in Lake Harding, Ala. September 2020. (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

Wake for Warriors also partnered with Operation Healing Forces to host a group of recently-deployed special operators and their significant others to “allow couples to reengage.” During these bonding events, Deep reports that “everybody gets to have a good time…They had a spa day, they’re going out in town, going to nice dinners.” But more importantly, when the operators and their spouses talk about their deployments and their experiences, it creates “a lot of healing and understanding.”

Wake for Warriors also hosted a bass tournament fishing event with sister organization Fishing for Warriors. The brain child of a Wake for Warriors rider, Deep offered to sponsor the organization.

“[The partnership] works out well because the principles are the same,” Deep explains. “Whether you have a fishing pole in your hand or you have a wakeboard handle in your hand, getting out there and hanging out with your newfound friends is very healing. And the thing is, you can’t put [veterans] together without something really special happening. It happens every time and none of it’s planned. It’s an amazing thing to sit back and just watch these people connect.”

How the Magic Happens

When Deep first started Wake for Warriors, he admits he “didn’t realize how important it was that these veterans get together in community.” In the last eight years, he’s watched veterans form bonds “on day one” because “there’s already a level of understanding” between them. By day two or three, “there’s a bond that’s formed that lasts beyond the event.”

Not only are participants forging deep friendships, but they’re also sharing information about the programs and treatments that have been helpful for them. This kind of insider knowledge can be valuable for any veterans trying to navigate how to heal from injuries, focus on improving their mental health, or deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Wake for Warriors rider and coach Tyler (US Air Force) wakesurfs at Lake Olympia, Fla. October 2020 (Courtesy of Dave Deep)

Wake for Warriors is just one of a number of veteran service organizations using physical challenges to empower veterans and help them create bonds, and Deep knows that his organization is making a difference. “Some people have been to other events and some have never been to one and they’ve been injured for 10 years and something breaks through that changes their life and it’s an honor to facilitate that, really.” 

“[Veterans] tell me [Wake for Warriors] is really cool, [that they] needed this. I hear [those two things] a lot,” Deep says. “In some cases, we give them a board and a life jacket that works and gear that fits and then they go out and enjoy it with their friends where they couldn’t before because they didn’t have the right gear…and then they go out and buy boats. It’s really cool, it makes me realize that we’re doing something right.”

For veterans who want to take part in the 2021 season, Deep expects that the full lineup of more than 20 events will soon be online. Having overcome one pandemic season, Wake for Warriors is ready to welcome new groups of veterans to experience the healing power of the water, to learn to shred with the best, and to take part in the incredible moments of bonding that the 2021 season will bring.

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