Sailing program helps wounded veterans

SAN DIEGO – Life for every Wounded Warrior is anything but smooth sailing. The Warrior Sailing Program is bringing veterans together to learn a new skill as well as help them navigate through life no matter how rough the water gets.

The program is a three-day sailing camp around San Diego Bay for veterans—some of whom have never set foot on a boat, and most of whom have never taken control of one.

They spend the first two days learning the basics, and then spend the third day putting their skills to the test in competition. It allows them to use their military training and feel like they’re part of a military community again.

Some of the boats are adapted to help those with physical ailments, but upwards of 75% of those who come through the program suffer from scars you can’t see, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or traumatic brain injuries.

Anthony Torrez, of Tyler, Texas, moved to San Diego to work on his rehabilitation and took part in the camp.  The retired Army staff sergeant did three tours between Iraq and Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD.

“After I got out I was struggling - isolated mostly and not enjoying life,” Torrez said.  “It’s one of the first recreational things I’ve done that requires teamwork.”

His coach Sammy Lugo lost his leg in an IED explosion in Iraq 10 years ago. Lugo was part of the camp’s first class in 2013 and is now a two-time instructor.  He said sailing helps him find a way to make it through the pain.

“I enjoy it and it’s something I’m never going to give up,” Lugo said.

The camp was founded by Jen French, who became a quadriplegic in a snowboarding accident.  She was on the 2012 Paralympic Sailing Team, but noticed that none of her teammates were veterans.  So she started the program and continues to fight to keep it alive at a cost of nearly $2,000 for each camper.

The program gets help from the San Diego Yacht Club, as well as from the San Diego Armed Services YMCA, which stepped up this year to make the camp possible again.

In its four years, veterans from all branches, of all ages and from all over the country have taken part.

Some have left the program and gotten boats of their own.  Others have started actual racing careers, including an alumnus who represented the United States in another uniform, as part of the 2016 Paralympic Games.