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This vet-founded nonprofit is ‘fishing’ for healing

Healing from the scars of war can come in many forms. Some veterans have found peace through music or golf – and some, like Air Force veteran Jim Dolan, found it through kayak fishing.

Dolan, a giant of a man in stature with an even bigger heart, was a major in the Air Force who sought to help veterans heal through kayak fishing. His passion coupled with the passion of others eventually led to the creation of Heroes on the Water, long after his passing.

Seventeen years after Heroes on the Water was founded in 2007, the non-profit organization has served more than 61,000 veterans, first responders and their families.

“Enthusiastic, like-minded people wanted to share their love of kayak fishing,” said Heroes on the Water spokesperson Faeda Elliott. “Our founder felt it might be a good way to help our veterans get off the couch and into nature.”

After Dolan and volunteers initially took soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio on a kayak fishing trip for the first time, he realized he had a program that could make a difference in the lives of veterans looking for ways to cope with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges vets commonly encounter while transitioning into civilian life.

One of those vets is Pat Cochrane, who served 12 years as a logistics officer in the Army, both on active duty and with the National Guard. His nine years of active duty included three deployments and direct ground combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2006 to 2008.

Cochrane suffered through psychological and emotional effects of combat stress and survivors’ guilt as well as the transition stress of finding post-military employment. He is currently the senior manager of routing operations and capability for PepsiCo, based in Plano, Texas. He is also a member of PepsiCo’s VALOR Employee Resource Group that helps employees and their spouses who are transitioning from the military.

“I know firsthand the stressors that service members and their families go through, from personal loss to multiple deployments, training rotations, and more,” Cochrane said. “Throughout military service, there’s very little downtime to process what you are feeling and sacrificing. In my own transition, it was important for me to find moments where I could quiet my mind and reflect on my own experiences.”

Through the VALOR group, Cochrane founded the Heroes on the Water program. Based in Allen, Texas, Heroes on the Water has 53 active chapters and five active therapeutic programs across 24 states.

VALOR and Heroes on the Water have partnered for 10 years, and in September they celebrated that relationship with an event in Plano with Frito Lay (part of PepsiCo), at the company’s private 300-acre lake, for more than 40 area veterans.

Cochrane isn’t the biggest fan of fishing, but participated in the event to support the other veterans who came to campus to experience it.

“Starting early in the morning, our visitors had the chance to enjoy several hours of ‘catch and keep’ kayak fishing on our Lake Frito,” Cochrane said. “It’s gorgeous, peaceful and filled with catfish and bass. We have these events many times, but each event we have supported has been a truly unique and rewarding experience for our associates.”

PepsiCo and Frito Lay started the VALOR group a decade ago with the goal of becoming a top career destination for veterans. It has 16 chapters across the country and works with veterans and their families and first-responders.

One of VALOR’s signature events is the annual “Rolling Remembrance,” an American flag relay that covers 14,000 miles and last year featured 62 truck drivers who are military veterans across the country leading up to Memorial Day.

“The most important service we provide is a safe, judgment-free space for military spouses, veterans and advocates to come together and feel supported,” said John Flesher, co-chair of VALOR’s employee resource group. “We have a shared mission to provide healing and camaraderie for veterans, making our organizational relationship a perfect partnership. Together we are able to shed light on this important mission, support the challenges that arise for veterans, and provide wellness opportunities.”

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