Hooking Up with Veterans: Guyton man helps fellow disabled vets calm turbulent waters through fishing group
Disabled veterans returning home often have difficulty readjusting to civilian life as they battle physical, mental and emotional issues. A number of them, unfortunately, are unable to cope and commit suicide.
One of their own is casting a lifeline through a sport he loves and has helped provide healing in his own life.
Kevin Edwards, 56, is a resident of Guyton who works as a techical specialist and writer in Gulfstream's Technical Operations Department. He’s also a disabled veteran who served in aviation in the Air Force and as a forward observer and infantryman in the Army National Guard during a 14-year military career. As a result of being an infantryman late in his career, Edwards developed degenerative disc disease and was medically discharged right before he was scheduled for deployment to Kuwait.
Returning home, Edwards struggled to regain a sense of normalcy as he endured debilitating pain from his neck to his legs and went through three surgeries. He found solace in fishing, an avocation he had pursued for much of his life, reveling in the calming effects of being out in nature and on the water in his boat. Catching the big one was a bonus.
Earlier this year, Edwards spread his fishing net, so to speak, starting Casting For a Cause Disabled Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit group designed to help disabled veterans and hopefully reduce the number of daily suicides that currently stands at 22.
“I want to promote awareness of the suicide problem among veterans while also providing opportunities for healing, regardless of what their disability may be, "Edwards said. “Fishing can be an outlet for them, an opportunity to drop their guard, share private conversations and make sure they know we’re an extended service for them.”
Edwards is executive director/CEO and one of seven board members for the organization. His wife, Vicki, is executive assistant and maintains the group's website. He said Covid has affected them a lot in terms of holding fundraisers. Noting they’ve raised $3,500 this year, Edwards said he’s made up the difference in the annual $13,500 operating costs.
Tournament fishing, which requires additional funding, allows disabled veteran members an opportunity to reach the podium and be recognized with top competitors. Any prize money earned covers additional expenses, with the remaining balance split between the competing member and the organization.
“Gulfstream pays me well,” said Edwards, who has competed in a number of tournaments with some of the veterans and puts any prize money back into his organization.
The veterans, most of whom are disabled and include an Army major who lost his leg in Iraq, go out most weekends in a boat Edwards bought last year. They fish mostly inshore in saltwater marshes and other waterways between Richmond Hill and Hilton Head Island.
“Even if we don’t catch fish, which is rare, we have a blast,” said Edwards, who submitted the application for 501-3C status in late October following a lengthy vetting process. “The camaraderie is almost like being back in the military.”
Edwards’ love of fishing is so great he’ll go fishing despite experiencing shooting pain and numbness in his legs; the organization recognizes that battles do not always end on the battlefield and uses the time fishing to mitigate the struggles many of the veterans are experiencing. The veterans are often battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although he doesn’t have PTSD, Edwards faces challenges in making the transition from military to civilian life in what remains an ongoing process.
“We’re conditioned to clear our minds for battle and forget family,” Edwards said. “After many years, it’s hard to bring that out. I feel a level of responsibility to help my military brothers and sisters, some of whom struggle to show affection toward their own families. Fishing is therapeutic for both the veterans and me.”
Jared Russell has gone on two fishing trips with Edwards. A resident of Pooler, he retired from the Army in 2016 following a 26-year career and suffers from PTSD and degenerative spine. Joining him on one of the outings was Ben Oravetz, a fellow Army retiree and longtime friend who, like Russell, is 100 percent disabled.
Russell said they fished on the Bull River and around Little Tybee Island for six to eight hours; it’s the first time he had fished since 1995, after growing up with the pastime. Adding to the experience was the playing of patriotic songs as they embarked on their fishing trip.
“We had our own water parade,” said Russell, who works as a realtor and despite his disability status is able to get around and considers himself fortunate compared to some other veterans. “Within minutes, Ben and I were cutting up and picking up from our days in the Army. We even caught some fish. It was a great experience. Kevin’s a real nice dude.”
Along with rediscovering a lifelong passion, Russell benefited from the freedom of being out on the water.
“From a PTSD standpoint, you put everything aside and catch your breath,” he said. “Just casting a line in the water is therapeutic. It’s just relaxing. It also helps support the brothers.”
One of those brothers is Oravetz, a resident of Estill, S.C. The two men were stationed together at Fort Stewart and have remained friends for 26 years. Oravetz retired from the Army on a medical discharge following a 13-year career and uses a cane and metal braces on occasion to help him contend with back and knee problems.
His outing with Russell was the first time he had fished in three years. “It was a blast,” said Oravetz, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and had fished all his life. “I didn’t always catch a keeper. I took home only one fish, a flounder, and gave it to Jared after filleting it.”
Even if he didn’t bring in a record haul, Oravetz could revel in getting together with an old friend and talking about issues to which they could closely relate.
“It takes your mind off everything and puts you into the moment,” he said. “You’re out there with with guys who have been there and done that. It takes a lot of weight off you. It’s very therapeutic. It’s like the Christian prayer counseling I’m involved with but more fun. It’s also like going out to a bar with your buddies, minus the drinking.”
Being 100 percent disabled, membership is free for Oravetz. Nevertheless, he gave Edwards $100 toward his trip.
“There are people in lot worse shape than I am,” said Oravetz, who plans on going on a second trip. “I’m paying it forward with the $100.”
Edwards said his goal is to have three boats, including a pontoon that could accommodate wheelchairs, and have a disabled veteran run the boats and maintain them and raise money for veterans and other groups. Although Casting For a Cause consists entirely of veterans at the moment, Edwards said it’s open to nonmilitary as well. The annual membership fee is $150 for civilians and $75 for veterans. The fee is waived for veterans who are 100 percent disabled.
For Edwards, the fishing trips offer a higher purpose as well; with his wife having lung issues, they haven’t attended church during the pandemic.
“That boat is my church,” said Edwards, noting the group is connected to a number of military chaplains. “It’s my ministry. We don’t shove our beliefs down their throats or thump the Bible. It’s about spending time with God and living a life that drives others to ask the right questions. I'm thankful for the Christian parents and grandparents who required us to read the Bible and learn how to lead others to Christ."
As the organization continues to grow and gain a foothold in the community, Edwards sees an opportunity to expand to other areas across the country.
"We will continue our fundraising efforts and look for the growth required to make that happen," said Edwards, who recently connected with the GA Veterans Outdoor Ministries to expand their footprint in Georgia.
For information on membership, volunteering or donations, go to castingforacause.net.