Local vets reunite through sailing program

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - It looks like an ordinary sail boat rocking in the waters off Charleston, but this one carries extraordinary tales of survival.

"I'll be honest with you, I didn't expect to be here period due to the fact I was very bad, I was suicidal," said Angelo Alessandro, a Vietnam veteran.

Though years may separate these veterans, they all know how it feels to flirt with death in a war zone. Now sailing unites them through Charleston's Veterans on Deck non-profit program.

"You could almost predict, 'Hey after dinner you know we might as well set our watches and wait for the enemy to mortar our base,'" said Army Ranger Alex Deseta, recalling his time in the deserts of Afghanistan." No matter how many times you tell yourself, ' Hey, you're not there anymore,' it's muscle memory."

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often feel too vulnerable in crowded social situations, avoiding them at all cost.

"We see people go from being suicidal to being nearly normal functioning individuals," said Dr. Michael Marzluff, a veteran and board member for the non-profit, explaining the changes in the participants during the past two years.

Every Friday, rain or shine, they are in the same boat, literally, where they must work together to keep the vessel from flipping.

"We never stop sailing," said Marzluff. "It's a little cold sometimes. It's a manly sail."

The healing comes from succeeding in the stressful circumstances.

"I've been on my pills for a long time, but the last two and a half months I've been off 'em because of the sail boats," said Alessandro, discussing how the program has helped him cope with his experiences in Vietnam.

As for Deseta, he is fresh off the battlefields of Afghanistan where he led 42 soldiers at the age of 24. He now holds a job in real estate, while he copes with PTSD. Sailing has become his therapy.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, Deseta and Allessandro forget their generational differences and take a break from navigation to dangle their feet from the boat they restored together after meeting through the program.

"It really opened up a past from when I was a child I used to sail a lot," Deseta said. "That really helped me reconnect with things back here in the United States."

Veteran navy man Sherman Gaskins feared groups of people and the water itself after a botched rescue mission decades ago.

"Before when I first came here it seemed like it took like forever to get out to where we was at today," Gaskins said.

Now he saves his gas money, driving four hours every week to see where the wind takes him.

"It really brought me back to the water and I always thought I was going to make the Navy a career and unfortunately I wasn't able to do that," said Gaskins. "And so this here kind of like put me back in touch. Kind of like to relive some moments that I thought I'd done lost. So it wasn't too late, so I really enjoy it."

Women veterans with military sexual trauma also go sailing around Charleston every Friday. All veterans can participate in the program.

On March 29 at 6 p.m. a benefit for Veterans on Deck will take place at the Charleston Yacht Club.

For more information go to veteransondeck.org.

Copyright 2012 WCSC. All rights reserved.