MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A new program is setting sail in South Carolina’s waters, it’s called ‘Operation Vet Sail’.
The program aims to help active duty military members and veterans fight specifically post-traumatic stress disorder, and other physical and mental ailments, through the peacefulness of sailing.
WMBF News had the chance to sail with one veteran who says sailing has been life-changing in his struggles with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury from combat. While being out on the water is relaxing for many people, it’s relaxing in a different way for combat veterans.
“It’s perfect," William Hutchens said. "You get out here, you have drills you have to go through, things you need to inspect. Get prepared, you know do a plan. While you’re sailing, you’re not thinking about your worries, you’re not thinking about what has happened or what could happen. You’re sailing. You get out on a beautiful day like this. It’s exhilarating,”
Hutchens is a 26 year veteran of the US Army and he’s been sailing and taking classes with Myrtle Beach Sailing School.
The Operation Vet Sail program is in partnership with the American Sailing Association as a crusade against veteran suicide and increased awareness of mental and physical care.
"I wanted to serve. It’s what I wanted to do. I knew I was going to join the army since I was a kid, and that’s what I did,” Hutchens said of why he decided to join the Army.
He joined in 1984 and explained he learned invaluable experience from Vietnam veterans during that time. He began in the Army as a tank mechanic but eventually left the armed forces in 1990.
“I did 26 years. I got out, became an infantryman, did some time with the National Guard then I came back in the Army after 9/11…with the attacks on the towers, I felt somebody ought to do something, and that meant me,” Hutchens said while taking in the scenery around Little River.
After re-enlisting in 2002 with the 82nd Airborne, Hutchens was deployed on his first tour in July 2003 to Iraq during the US invasion, it would be his first of three in the Middle East.
“I was hit with a IED, I was the first person in my battalion to be hit with an IED," Hutchens said. “We got hit with a 35-pound plastic explosive.”
He unknowingly suffered from a traumatic brain injury because of that explosion.
At the time, he said he felt lucky to walk away with all his toes and fingers. He continued his tour. In 2005, he realized something wasn’t right while back in the US.
He sought treatment for PTSD and was then diagnosed with his brain injury from the IED explosion.
“It can make just, it can, can make day to day life though, you know?” Hutchens said it was different back then and is thankful treatment has improved for traumatic brain injuries over the years.
"They’re very similar to PTSD. Initially, I was treated for PTSD... which I suffer from also. But its’ two different things. Once they figured out I had a brain injury also they were able to give me the treatment I needed.”
Hutchens recovered in a warrior transition unit for eight months before he went on to serve two more tours, another in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
“Take it day by day and you need to do things that are familiar to you that’s fun. But you have to…one of the biggest things you need to do are hobbies or activities that are physically challenging. And give you hope for the future. Something that has you looking forward to waking up in the day, which is why I love sailing,” Hutchens said, smiling.
He’s now retired, and thankful to have found a way to channel his needs in sailing.
Hutchens said he’s jumped out of a plane more than 150 times in the Army but is ready to move to Wales with his wife and continue his education there in oceanography.
The Myrtle Beach Sailing School is working with other veterans, too. They all learn sailing exercises and maneuvers specifically to help overcome their struggles. Hutchens has been sailing with Myrtle Beach Sailing School operator Jason Cox to pass classes and sail independently.
Operation Vet Sail kicked off October 16th and continues through November 11th of next year.