The war on terror has several frontlines. Iraq and Afghanistan are the two most prominent frontlines, but there is another frontline right here in this country – an invisible war raging on within the men and women who return from deployments only to realize their own battle has just begun. For some, their lives are just as much at risk here, within their own homes, as they were over there, yet the enemy they fight here is less familiar.
It is an unseen pain with a lethal potency and it is killing our veterans. But two young men in New York are helping our veterans fight back. The Duclay brothers and Sail Ahead…
Killian and Sean Duclay are a two-man command who have recruited an army – or navy- to help them wage this war against veteran PTSD and suicide.
Their weapons in this war are honor, commitment, courage, adrenalin, patriotism – and sailboats. They have turned the ocean into their battlefield and they are winning this war one battle at a time.
It’s hard to believe these two men, so young and so full of smiles, could be so fearless out on the sea. It is more incredible when you learn that they started this work in 2013. Sean was just 14 years old, and Killian wasn’t much older.
Their parents raised the boys and their two sisters on the water. Sean and Killian grew up sailing and it became more than a passion for them – it became their way of life. They realized that when they are on the water, their troubles and stress stay on land, and they are free to savor the experience. The time allows them to recharge and satiates their “healthy addiction” to adrenalin.
Sailing season in Suffolk County, NY, is not long enough for the average sailor who yields the sea to winter. But the Duclays are no average sailors. Self-confessed adrenalin junkies, they have the most fun in the harsher weather, when they are most challenged. “We don’t stop when Fall comes around,” they explain, “We just keep sailing.”
It’s pretty crazy when you think about it. That’s why we don’t think about it much.
Suffolk County is home to approximately 79,000 veterans. When Sean and Killian learned of a Vietnam veteran struggling with his pain, they invited him sailing. The fact that is was winter and their boat was a 16 foot Hobie Cat didn’t stop them. It was cold and uncomfortable, and they were concerned about their 70-year-old mate, but that concern dissipated when the sail ended.
Their first veteran sailing mate had tears in his eyes as he hugged the boys.”
He shared with them that he’d been in therapy for twenty years. He was a 100% service connected veteran, diagnosed with PTSD, and he cried with the boys as he thanked them for this experience. Killian and Sean were hooked.
That veteran stayed in touch with the Duclays. He sailed with them every weekend after that for years. Now, the man who was once so besieged with torment that he rarely left his house, has begun to travel.
After their first experience, they wanted to help more veterans. With more veterans came the need for more boats, so the teenagers, “started collecting crappier boats” people donated to them. They’d work on the boats to make them seaworthy and thus started their fleet.
The sailing environment is an immersive one, a sort of forced group therapy.
“They can’t very well leave the room. They must interact. It’s a team effort to sail,” the Duclays explain. It’s a one-two punch approach that both requires teamwork and allows the veterans to challenge themselves, applying some of the skills or traits they learned in the military to the overall well-being of the boat and everyone on it.
The result is an outlet for adrenalin, an opportunity to re-engage with others, and the therapeutic balm of nature- even when it’s freezing cold.
Over time their informal sailing program grew right along with the Duclays. What began that snowy day with one veteran has morphed into an organized crew of volunteer captains donating their time and their boats to take veterans sailing. They have run over a thousand outings since then, even branching out to the other side of the country. The Duclay sisters are involved too – their 14-year-old sister takes meeting notes while their sixteen-year-old sister captures the beauty of these events in striking photographs. They’ve even managed to get the VA involved.
It took two years of effort to convince the Northport VA to engage with Sail Ahead. Finally, the collaboration was official, and the Duclays ran their first VA sanctioned event. This was another turning point for them and for Sail Ahead, as the Duclays were officially on the map and now had a more professional approach to their work.
Still, the Duclays and Sail Ahead knew there was more they could do.
“We realized many of the people who need help are ones staying home and not reaching out,” they explain, so they knew they had to increase their efforts to spread the word. They doubled down on their outreach, communicating with families who lost a veteran to suicide.
They started 219 Mates, an additional component of Sail Ahead, inspired by Army Ranger
veteran George Eshelman, who hiked the Appalachian Trail carrying dogs tags bearing the names of 218 veterans who lost their battle and their lives to PTSD. With Eshelman’s permission, they folded those 218 dogs tags into Sail Ahead. They added one more name of their own, and 219 Mates was born. Those 219 tags travel with the Duclays and many families of the fallen represented on those tags are now involved with Sail Ahead.
It’s an extraordinary effort and and extraordinay accomplishment by the Duclays far and beyond what the average citizen undertakes when struck with inspiration. When asked why they work so hard – what drives them to invest so much of themselves into this work, their answer is swift and compelling:
[clickToTweet tweet=”When we send people – kids- abroad to fight for us and they come home and are left for dead, that’s a war zone.” quote=”When we send people – kids- abroad to fight for us and they come home and are left for dead, that’s a war zone. – The Duclay Brothers, Sail Ahead” theme=”style5″]