The four men fishing from their ProKat catamaran some 15 miles off the coast of Vero Beach may look like any other group of saltwater fishermen out for a day hoping to land “the big one.” As their 30-foot fishing boat powers through choppy waters underneath a magnificent, cloudless blue sky, all of them whoop and holler while the oldest fisherman on board battles a feisty barracuda. After a 20-minute tug-of-war, he finally lands the toothy 4-footer and exchanges high-fives with his boatmates.
While the scene is one that plays out frequently in these fish-rich waters, these men are not your everyday deep-sea fishing buddies. Rather, they are all local military veterans who are suffering from various degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder. Each has been invited by the Vero Beach-based charity Wounded Waters to “leave their troubles onshore” and enjoy a day of deep-sea fishing with fellow veterans.
The boat’s captain and owner is retired Army Ranger 1st Sgt. Kevin Klepac, who founded Wounded Waters several years ago while still serving in the military. “I grew up in Vero Beach and always loved fishing. It was a wonderful way to get away from whatever was troubling you and relax,” explains the trim 39-year-old as he sits on a picnic bench in Riverside Park.
While still stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he started inviting fellow soldiers, especially those with PTSD, out fishing to “get away from it all and relax on the water with other vets.” It worked. “I quickly learned how therapeutic it was for active-duty members and veterans to get together with other military folks, just relax, fish, and sometimes talk over their troubles and issues. It didn’t really matter if we caught any fish; being together was enough. I began calling it ‘saltwater therapy.’”
Klepac, a three-time Bronze Star recipient, acknowledges that he also suffers from PTSD after numerous missions in many of the world’s hottest trouble spots, including eight deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He remembers one young Fort Campbell soldier who came to him after a day of fishing: “He thanked me. Then he thanked me again. I sensed he wanted to talk more.” The young soldier then admitted, “This day out fishing with fellow military members is just what I needed. It made me realize I wasn’t alone.” He paused for a beat then added, “I was going to kill myself tonight. Now I won’t.”
“That blew me away,” says Klepac. “It was then that I realized I had found my life calling.” After being transferred to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, he bought his ProKat and started Wounded Waters, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, intended, as its website states, “to get military members and veterans out fishing so they stop worrying about the stressors of daily life and know they are not alone.” When Klepac retired from active duty, he and his wife, Stephanie, returned to Vero Beach, where she was also born and raised.
Klepac explains that Wounded Waters is not, strictly speaking, therapy, but it was designed to get veterans who are suffering from PTSD out of their houses. “Once you’ve left the military, it’s like you’ve lost your community, and your identity, and nobody really understands. What we offer is the chance to get together with like-minded people and reestablish that bond one had in the military. It’s also letting veterans know that it is okay to not be okay. And it’s really about camaraderie.”
Local Vietnam veteran Chuck Gerrald, who has been on several Wounded Waters excursions, adds, “It’s rare that we speak about PTSD when we’re out fishing. It’s more about being with—and talking to—veterans who have walked in your shoes. For a lot of veterans who are suffering from PTSD, this may be their first step out of their house in a long time. I know many who were reclusive but, after fishing with Kevin and others, are now socially active. It is amazing what one little fishing trip can do!”
As concerned veterans like Klepac, Gerrald, and others will point out, 22 veterans and service members commit suicide every day. “That’s a national disgrace, and we have to work to bring that number down to zero,” says Klepac.
According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 500,000 U.S. troops who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years have screened positive for PTSD. Local therapist and Marine Corps veteran Tom Metzinger says, “Therapy is important, but so are programs like Wounded Waters that bring veterans together and prove to them that there are others who are going through the same issues they are.”
Klepac started Wounded Waters with his own money and his own boat. Now retired with two young children, he works part-time as a home inspection specialist and continues to pour a lot of his own money into the charity. A military buddy helped walk him through the complicated steps of establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “Operating it is expensive,” he admits. “On average, we spend $500 to $700 per trip for fuel, boat servicing, equipment, and more.” A recent rewiring and electronics overhaul cost $20,000. He took out more than 100 veterans last year and hopes to increase that number this year.
As word of Wounded Waters’ unique work—and successes—has spread, donors have offered to help out. A Facebook group called “Can I Have It? Vintage Tools” has donated roughly $40,000. Local stores, such as Walmart, have raised money with auctions and grants. Retired Shell Oil executive and Vero Beach resident Jeff Fulk was so impressed by Klepac’s work that he often helps cover day-to-day expenses and recently bought the charity a 22-foot Pathfinder boat to help cater to veterans who want to fish, or cruise, the calmer Indian River Lagoon instead of the ocean. “Kevin is just so devoted to this cause that he inspires others to lend a hand. He’s the real deal and he’s making a difference,” says Fulk.
Klepac shows no signs of slowing down. Wounded Waters has begun inviting local first responders to join its fishing trips and river cruises. Klepac is also taking classes to become a certified dive instructor so that diving can be added to the organization’s range of activities.
Klepac also hopes one day to start a Wounded Waters Ranch where military members, veterans, and first responders suffering with PTSD can spend three to four days with their families in a relaxing environment. Klepac’s blue eyes light up when he describes his ranch plans: “It would take maybe $10 million to buy the land and set it up. But it could change, even save, lives.”
After explaining how he hopes to expand Wounded Waters, Klepac confesses, “Taking veterans out fishing is also therapy—‘saltwater therapy’—for me. After all, I am going through many of the same things and dealing with the same issues they all are. We are there for one another.” As if on cue, his mobile phone rings. It is from a veteran calling to thank Klepac for including him on a recent fishing trip and “just to chat.”
Remember the young veteran who, five years ago, helped inspire Klepac to set up Wounded Waters? “He is still in the Army, has turned his life around, and is married with a family,” says the former Ranger. “And get this—now he takes guys out fishing!”