The War Heroes on Water tournament started four years ago, giving veterans a chance to meet with their fellow former service members and discuss their experiences in the military.
According to the War Heroes on Water website, the tournament gives veterans a chance to “connect with fellow veteran heroes to establish invaluable, potentially lifelong bonds” that will help them create lifelines that enable them to continue healing from the wounds of combat.”
Mike Nares, an eight-year Army infantry veteran and recepient of two Purple Hearts who joined the military in 2003 following the 9/11 attacks, told Fox News that has been with the tournament “from the beginning” after being invited by his friend Anthony Shay.
“He invited me because he knew I was, at the time, going through a lot of mental demons from combat,” Nares said in a Friday phone interview, adding that his experience with War Heroes on Water has “been nothing but amazing.”
“It’s hard to find, when you get out of the military, a group of people that do truly care, and War Heroes is one of them,” Nares told Fox News, calling the organization a “brotherhood” and saying that War Heroes on Water helped him open up “and talk about what I went through in combat.”
Mea Peterson, a six-year Army veteran sailing on one of two boats of only female veterans, told Fox News the women she has met through her experience with Heros on the Water has helped her meet and form friendships with women who have gone through similar experiences with her.
“We are in a group chat, we talk almost daily,” Peterson said in a phone interview with Fox News. She joined the National Guard in January 2001 before being deployed.
Peterson said she thinks this event is important because it “open’s people’s eyes as to what a veteran looks like.”
“There’s been a lot of pictures of guys that are big with shaved heads and that kind of stuff. But veteran can really be anybody in the United States,” she said.
Peterson described her life in the lead up to her deployment as a “sorority girl” still in university but found that she couldn’t “relate” to her friends after coming back from combat.
“I got very angry, I got frustrated, I got upset. I didn’t understand what’s wrong with me, so trying to work through some of that and having a pretty good support network that got me through that and then realizing that there’s nothing wrong with having therapy,” Peterson said. “It means you may need a little of assistance and then learning the coping mechanism to help you get through once you get overwhelmed or anxiety or have those moments that need a little bit more attention.”
The Army veteran said that War Heroes on Water places a “huge emphasis on giving us a lot of time on a boat out in the water with somebody, to really learn about them” and describing the time on the water as “a comfortable setting” where one can “feel like you can share experiences.”
Senior Chief, Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman Jack Graham, a 23-year Navy veteran with numerous recognitions for heroism and valor participating in his third tournament, told Fox News in a phone interview that the tournament is a way for him “to get out on the water with other veterans and other skippers on the water in southern California.”
“And to get away from everything so my brain can just enjoy the ocean and nature, and learning to get along with other people, is probably most important,” Graham said, adding he has “met other vets with similar issues, and guys who love to be on the water, guys who are just excited about the water.”
Graham said the support he’s received from the people he’s met and Freedom Alliance, have made him feel “kind of warm and fuzzy.”
“I have two of three groups of friends from different events…and we talk almost every day and continue to give each other crap and you know – same thing that we would have done in the military – and you know we reach out to each other when we’re having issues and it really helps.”
Graham said he has made friends with people from different military branches through the programs like War Heros on the Water.
“I was stationed with Marines for most of my career, so I get along well with Marines. And I get along well with the Army guys – who I never thought I’d get along with,” he said joking. “But they’re pretty good guys,” he added.
Graham said he struggled with a number of issues leaving the service, including PTSD.
“There was a trust thing. In the military you trust everybody, but once you get on the outside you learn that you can’t trust a lot of people. That kind of makes it nice to be able to go to an event like this because these guys were military, there’s great patriots who run these boats and run this tournament, and so you build back your trust.”
“It’s the one event I look forward to every year,” Graham said. “I look forward to meeting new people, new boats, maybe learning new…techniques, being around patriots and just having a great time on the water.”
“It helped me to…get out of the past and go forward,” Graham said. “Going forward is a huge deal.”
War Heroes on Water is expecting to have their biggest fishing tournament to date, with 100 veterans signed up to fish on a fleet of 40 sportsfishing yachts and over $ 1.2 million raised from .
Freedom Alliance, the organization hosting the tournament, provides support to wounded troops and military families and raised over $ 1.2 million from 1,100 donors and 51 sponsors through the War Heroes on Water tournament.
The tournament kicks off Saturday afternoon with a boat parade through the Newport Harbor East Turning Basin in southern California before the three-day tournament begins.
“Come do it, it will open up your eyes to the life outside of the military,” Nares said. “Everybody holds what they did near and dear to their heart but this tournament is exactly what you have in the military: a family.”
“You’re able to talk to everybody, and everybody that is involved in this tournament has open ears and are willing to listen to what’s going on in everyday life for veterans,” “And veterans have been through a lot of struggles, and this tournament helps with those struggles.”
If you or a person you know are a veteran in crisis, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or text the hotline at 838255.
Houston Keene is a reporter for Fox News Digital. You can find him on Twitter at @HoustonKeene.