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For veterans, afternoon of sailing brings sense of calm, understanding

Veterans and family members participated as guests on

Veterans and family members participated as guests on a fleet of about 50 sailboats at Centerport Yacht Club during SailAhead's fifth annual "Let's Take a Veteran Sailing" event on Sunday. Credit: James Carbone

Despite the searing heat, hundreds of people lined up on the dock at Northport Harbor — water bottles in hand, hats over their heads and sunscreen applied.

They were ready to set sail for a worthy cause: supporting military veterans who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges.

On Sunday, nearly 200 veterans and their family members piled into roughly 50 sailboats for the fifth annual “Let’s Take A Veteran Sailing” event  hosted by SailAhead.

When former Army Ranger Ron O'Ferrall steps on a boat, he gets a sense of calm that he doesn't find easily on land. He suffered a traumatic brain injury on the job and has struggled to adjust to civilian life after his eight years of service. 

“When you get on the water, all that goes away,” said O’Ferrall, 42, of Tacoma, Washington. “All that anxiety, all this fear, all that crying, all that crap, it goes away once you get on the water.”

O'Ferrall also likes the sense of camaraderie, the understanding of others who are facing the same things in life. 

“It brings veterans, it brings even service members together, so we can see, hey, we’re all here together, it’s something collective, and people really care,” he said.

Sunday's sail was the first for Air Force veteran Raymond Harewood. He has gone through some rough patches himself, including homelessness. 

“It’s a stress issue, and unfortunately, there are some who don’t have the means to adjust,“ said Harewood, 62, who lives in a veterans’ housing development in Amityville. “Being able to release, talk about it, with all different types of ways — this is one of them.”

The nametags of 219 veterans who took their own lives also set sail. Sometimes, the hardest part of transitioning is losing fellow former service members.

“It really hit close to home,” said O’Ferrall, on the loss of a friend. “You feel all these feelings, from anger to betrayal and guilt. What more could we have done?”

On average, 20 veterans and active-duty service members commit suicide every day in America, according to a 2018 Department of Veterans Affairs report.

Except for the heat, the afternoon-long sail went smoothly. To help the veterans and family members cope with the heat, organizers shorted the duration of the sail and put the older and more vulnerable passengers on boats with shade. Police officers also were nearby, in case of an emergency. 

Marine veteran Mark Otto, 49, of Red Bank, N.J., fought in the Panama invasion and Operation Desert Storm. He didn’t mind the heat at all.

“I fought in the desert, I fought in the jungle. Things could always be much worse. There’s no one shooting at you today,” he said with a laugh.

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