After regaling the gathering of combat wounded with his stories of helping hunt down drug lord Pablo Escobar then taking part in the invasion of Panama, Nelson Corbin gets serious.
“We are the only military group here,” says Corbin, a retired Green Beret sergeant major as he addresses the nine men about to board 23-foot sailboats at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. “Let’s show them who we are.”
Corbin, 59, is serving as the operations officer for the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. Founded by retired Navy Capt. Dave Olson, the Tarpon Springs-based organization combines adventure sports, mental and physical therapy and scientific study to help troops overcome their injuries now and in the future.
Sailing since he was a child growing up in North Carolina, Corbin is now in charge of turning a group of rookies into a cohesive, winning team.
They tasted victory in their first race, sweeping the novice divisions of the Galveston Disabled Sailing Championships in October.
For men who mostly never sailed before, let alone competitively, that was a big deal. Such a big deal, says Corbin, that he and Gerard Coleman, the Texas A&M sailing team coach who worked with them, agreed to return for the America’s Disabled Open Regatta, which started Friday and runs through Sunday.
This race is even bigger.
“This is a Paralympic tune-up,” says Shawn Macking, the yacht club’s waterfront director. ”There is international competition here. It is going to be stiff.”
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On a foggy Thursday morning, the kitchen of Carol Martin’s waterfront Tarpon Springs manse is filled with men who bear the wounds, seen and unseen, of 13 years of war. Some are missing limbs, some are full of plates and pins and some have battle-damaged brains or some combination of several maladies. Many struggle with post traumatic stress disorder.
They have been here since Monday evening, gathered by Olson, who has transformed Martin’s home into a very comfortable command outpost, complete with a yacht for mental health therapy sessions.
“Sailing is a familial thing,” says Olson. “It brings people together.”
It is breakfast time and the men are chowing down on cheese and ham omelet, muffins, croissants and fruit, gathering energy for what will be a long day in the hot sun.
They are alternately nervous and excited.
“I don’t know what to expect,” says Ken Patterson.
In October 2010, Patterson, an Army staff sergeant, was on a Chinook CH-47 helicopter which had just landed at an Afghan National Army base to drop off food and water. But before it could take off again, an insurgent dressed as an Afghan soldier fired a rocket propelled grenade. The RPG’s fins sliced off portions of both Patterson’s legs below the knees.
Sharing a story common among the combat wounded, Patterson says the rehabilitation and coming to grips with his new reality was arduous. Sailing, and spending time with fellow war injured helps.
“With the depression and everything else you go through, you never really have to explain yourself,” he says.
Like Patterson, Brian Miller, 47, of Rockwell, North Carolina, is an amputee. In 2008, Miller was heading back to his base near Baghdad when the Stryker he was riding in was hit by an explosively formed penetrator, a projectile specially designed to penetrate armor. After months of excruciating pain and little hope for full recovery, the medically retired Army sergeant had his left leg amputated above the knee.
With a mission-oriented mentality forged by years of service, Miller says that joining Olson’s sailing program provides much needed mental and physical challenges and a return to a familiar way of life, says Miller.
“Getting ready and preparing for the mission is important,” he says. “It takes you back to being in a combat situation. I want to know the guys have my back and I have their back.”
Gerard Coleman, a classmate and sailing teammate of Olson’s at the Naval Academy, says that in many ways, a regatta race is more rewarding for combat wounded than even scaling a mountain, which Olson’s group has done several times now.
While climbing a mountain like Mt. McKinley or Kilimanjaro is certainly far more dangerous and physically challenging, sailing “is totally a team effort,” says Coleman, the Texas A&M coach,
With each 23-foot Sonar racing boat having three to a team, it takes everyone working together to get anywhere, says Coleman. His mission over the week is to teach the neophyte sailors how to race other boats, to master their own boat and how to read the wind and the weather.
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Carrie Elk has a similar mission with the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. But instead of getting the men to understand their boats and how they are effected by the elements, she is helping them understand how their injuries have affected their mind.
Elk, founder of the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance, has three goals for this week. Training on what psychological trauma is and how it can be treated; treating mental trauma and helping the men cope with their experiences; and observing the men in adventure-based team activities and stressful situations to see how that affects their PTSD.
Before the men even arrived, they had to fill out 20-page questionnaires so that Elk could develop a working profile of their psychological health. Elk is trying to ascertain their levels of post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression, anger, aggression, loss of control and loneliness. With that information in hand, she will observe the men as they react to stressful situations, and then follow that up with debriefings to learn how they experienced the events.
Each man also underwent individual therapy sessions with Elk.
The sessions were held on Martin’s 85-foot luxury yacht called Sojourn, moored at a dock about 200 yards from her house. The yacht was chosen both because it is a comfortable setting and is far enough from the house that it offered privacy. And each man was required to take part so that no one felt a stigma of seeking treatment.
The sessions were originally slated for 90 minutes, says Elk. Most went longer.
Those experiencing PTSD underwent a trauma therapy that reprocesses how the mind stores memories.
“The memories don’t go away,” says Elk, who has been an instructor at U.S. Special Operation Command’s Joint Special Operations University. “They are just reprocessed so they no longer elicit a traumatic response.”
In conversations, the men bring up the therapy sessions without prompting.
Nathan Deneault, 28, is a former Navy seaman who helped more than 14,000 jets land aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan before accidently falling 70 feet on the ship, leaving him with severe traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, partly as a result of the incident, partly as the result of the difficulty he has trying to get his body to move the way he wants it to. The therapy, says Deneault, helped him.
“I feel more comfortable, more relaxed,” says Nate Deneault. “I am energized and slept great last night.”
Having Elk along to study and treat adds tremendous value to the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge says Anthony Webster, an Army medic who was severely injured while assigned to a commando unit seeking high value targets in Zhari District of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.
“This doesn’t just put a band-aid on the problem and have guys come for a week or two and have fun,” says Webster, who in his civilian life once provided personal security for the Red Sox, including David Ortiz.
For Olson’s program, there was an added bonus. Elk brought Charles Claybaker, a 2006 St. Petersburg High School graduate, to talk about how the therapy has helped him. Claybaker, 30 was an Army Ranger badly injured on April 9, 2010 when the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft he was riding in crashed in Afghanistan, slamming into the ground at more than 180 miles per hour. He suffered a wide range of physical injuries and mental trauma and says that the therapy has helped him cope with PTSD.
Needing another racer, the guys recruited Claybaker.
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Thursday afternoon, the men prepare the boats and set off to practice. For most it is the first time they hit the water since Galveston. Weather depending, they will take part in more than a dozen four-mile races, lasting about an hour each, until a winner is crowned Sunday. They will be competing against boats from around the U.S., as well as Sweden and Ireland, whose crew includes John Twomey, the president of the International Organization for Disabled Sailing.
In boat No. 7, Claybaker is making his first trip, joining Deneault and Patterson to make up one of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge’s three teams.
The first to leave the dock, they get the 23-footer moving pretty quickly, but before getting too far, they realize their way out to Tampa Bay is blocked by massive yachts gathered for a boat show.
“My bad,” says Claybaker, who is manning the bow and working the jib sail.
Still, the newly formed team deftly tacks, catches the wind and turns the boat around, making its way out to Tampa Bay.
“Wow, that is really awesome,” says Patterson, viewing the inverted pyramid of the St. Petersburg Pier for the first time. “I know a lot of people in St. Pete might not like it, but man, that’s beautiful.”
Deneault, who like Patterson was part of the successful effort in Galveston, is in charge, calling out when to tack, or turn into the wind, and timing their efforts.
It is a perfect day for sailing, warm, but not sweltering, with just enough wind to propel the boat but not so fierce that the seas swell.
Overhead, the unmistakable gray contour of the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling jet is making its approach to MacDill Air Force Base. On the water, the unmistakable gray fins of dolphins pop up.
“That is so cool,” says Patterson, watching the dolphins play with a yellow race marker. “They say that dolphins are smarter than humans.”
For the men in boat No. 7, it has been a good tune-up, says Deneault.
“We are getting ready for the competition that is coming over the next couple of days,” he says. “This was a chance for bonding. And brotherhood.”
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Those good vibes take a hit as the first day of racing doesn’t go as well as hoped. The Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge teams finish last out of the 12 teams competing in Friday’s races.
Though there are still two days of racing left, including today , and victory is not the ultimate goal of the program, “everyone is disappointed in their performance,” says Coleman,
Highly competitive, “they were expecting better results, given their performance at Galveston,” says Coleman, “However, they have only been competing for a week and a half against people who are Paralympic world champions, like Twomey, who have been racing for 40 years.”
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