Recently Wounded Vets Sail Toward New Recognition of Capabilities
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SAN DIEGO, Oct. 2, 2008 Army Staff Sgt. Michael Fradera had never even been on a sailboat before an improvised explosive device in Baghdad blasted away both of his legs during the early days of the troop surge in Iraq.
Kevin Wixom, captain of B-Quest II, shows Army Staff Sgt. Michael Fradera how to steer the vessel through San Diego Harbor during the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic. DoD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But yesterday, the former 1st Infantry Division soldier, now medically retired from the Army, was the king of San Diego Harbor at the helm of a 43-foot racing sailboat, B-Quest II.
Fradera is among 56 recently wounded veterans, including troops being processed through the disability evaluation system, participating in the first National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic Pilot Program. The week-long clinic, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, opened Sept. 28 and continues through tomorrow.
Many of the participants, like Fradera, were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan and are getting an early introduction to the therapeutic value of not only sailing, but also surfing, kayaking, hand-cycling and track and field events.
During yesterday’s sailing event, Kevin Wixom welcomed Fradera and his wife, Jennifer, aboard the Nelson/Marek Custom 43 racing sailboat he captains for Challenged America. B-Quest II is the flagship of the San Diego-based organization founded by disabled Vietnam veterans to provide adaptive sailing opportunities for others with disabilities.
Joining the Fraderas on B-Quest II were Marine Cpl. Sherman Watson and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Gary Wiedemann. Watson, assigned to the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, suffered a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb explosion in Fallujah, Iraq, and is undergoing the disability screening board process. Wiedemann was medically retired from the Air Force due to several physical issues, including a digestive disorder picked up during a deployment to Iraq.
Other clinic participants with more severe disabilities took their places on 16-foot Martin adaptive sailboats. These two-seaters accommodate an instructor and a veteran who steers the boat from the forward seat using a joystick that replicates the action of a rudder, Wixom explained.
As B-Quest II was leaving its slip, Wixom quickly informed the veterans that crewing a sailboat is no spectator sport. “Everyone aboard here is working, not just riding,” he said.
Wixom and other volunteers assigned them to crew positions and took them through the basics of how to hoist and trim the sails, grind winches, tack the boat to change direction and take the helm to navigate through San Diego Harbor.
An amputee himself who lost his left leg five years ago in a motorcycle accident, Wixom called sailing a great rehabilitative sport because it demands strength, adaptability to ever-changing wind conditions and teamwork.
“With sailing, there’s a lot of physical work involved, but there are also important lessons for life,” he said. “You have to pay attention to the environment, to know what’s going on around you and how to use that to the best of your ability. That’s a valuable life lesson for anyone to be successful, whether you’re a corporate CEO or an accountant or a skipper.”
Wixom said the sailing experience would help the veterans recognize the opportunities open to them if they’re receptive.
“Our hope is to show them that life is not over and that they can still do things like this,” he said. “And on top of that, we just want them to have fun and enjoy a good time.”
Adjusting the mainsail during a reach across the harbor, Fradera cheered on his fellow crewmembers. “Come on, guys!” he called. “Put some guns into it!” Meanwhile, Watson took the helm, working to keep the tell-tales on the jib sheet flying despite light and inconsistent winds.
Like Fradera, Watson had never been on a sailboat before. The last time he was on San Diego Harbor, he said, was aboard an aircraft carrier that had been called back to port so the Marines onboard could gear up for the invasion into Iraq.
More than six years later and with three Purple Hearts, Watson put those thoughts away as he savored his sailing experience aboard B-Quest II. “This feels soooooo good,” he said, his face lapping up sunshine and breeze. “Getting to be here doing this is just awesome. I love every minute of this.”