Veterans were seen sailing into the sunset – literally – June 17.

That was the launch date for the 14-foot sailboat named Patriot the Veterans built over the past 1½ years as part of their outpatient therapy.

“It was wonderful. A positive experience.”

The boat-building project is part of the recreation therapy program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

But the benefits go beyond a little time on the water.

“It’s all part of the healing process,” said Jeff Peterson, Navy Veteran of the Vietnam War. He has been involved with recreation therapy since 2013 to aid his recovery from PTSD. He’s worked on the boat projects since their inception.

“It’s been really great,” he said. “The camaraderie is outstanding and it’s a way to expand your horizons while doing something therapeutic. It’s wonderful. It is nothing but a positive experience.”

Army Veteran Clifford was treated for alcoholism at the Milwaukee VA about a year ago and started recreation therapy as part of his rehabilitation.

“It keeps me busy,” he said. “It keeps me focused on something besides sitting at home thinking about alcohol.”

The boat-building project began about four years ago when Milwaukee VA teamed up with All Hands Boatworks, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization that hosts boat-building activities, mostly for youth groups.

“It can be transformational for people working around a boat project,” said All Hands Boatworks founder Bill Nimke. “But, it’s the lessons learned. How can we take what we’re doing together and apply it? What relevance does it have maybe in the rest of our life? It ranges from learning new tool skills to working more cooperatively with a group.”

HUD-VASH recreation therapist Courtney Zeller helped launch the activity and has seen it continue to grow as more Veterans cycle in and out and the boats get progressively bigger.

Veterans enjoyed it and benefited from it

The latest boat, known as a Caravelle skiff, is the biggest one yet. It is a rowing and sailing dory-skiff able to accommodate one or two occupants.

“We saw the Veterans really enjoyed it and benefited from it so we progressed to building a small boat, then bigger and bigger,” Zeller said. “The huge benefit is that it involves a lot of collaboration, working together and then brainstorming to come up with different ideas and having something they can see as an end goal.”

“It ranges from learning new tool skills to working more cooperatively with a group.”

The most recent project got sidetracked by COVID-19 restrictions but got back on track in February 2021.

The Veterans meet once a week to work on the boat. During last week’s session, the finishing touches were taking place. While some applied varnish to the boat, others worked on sewing the red, white and blue sail.

The work was accompanied by laughter and conversation and joking with one another.

“The Veterans enjoy working on it, and they enjoy being together,” said Paul Bargren, a volunteer at All Hands Boatworks. “I really enjoy meeting and working with the Veterans.”

“It was an experiment but I learned a lot.”

Most of the Veterans involved have some woodworking experience, but it’s not required. Learning new skills is part of the program’s purpose.

“This is great,” said Ron Schneider, Army Veteran who served in Vietnam. “I’m a novice woodworker, so this is an adventure. It was an experiment, but I learned a lot.”

Zeller agreed.

“It gives them access to some of the different skills they have used in the past and they get to use these skills toward doing this project, which is exciting,” Zeller said.

In all, nearly a dozen Veterans and about half a dozen volunteers from All Hands Boatworks worked on the project. They logged 90 to 100 hours to complete the boat.

All of the Veterans’ work culminated the evening of June 17 when the boat was launched with the help of the Milwaukee Yacht Club.

After that, it will continue to be used as part of the recreation therapy program’s sailing/boating group.

Watch a Facebook video of the boat launch:

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