With a specially designed paddleboard, a custom paddle and a desire to help wounded veterans, Kihei resident Dave Fletcher formed the Wounded Warrior Wave Riders Association (WWWRA), a 501(c)(3) charity. Fletcher's dream to give wheelchair-bound amputee soldiers, who have lost the use of one or both of their legs, an immersive, healing experience in Maui's beautiful waters became a reality in April 2013.
As a former U.S. Marine captain and fighter pilot, Fletcher flew 178 combat missions in Vietnam. After leaving the Marines, he flew search-and-rescue missions, air ambulance and float planes, and as a bush pilot in Canada and a cargo pilot in Alaska and the Caribbean.
"I accumulated over 7,000 hours flight time in 30 different aircraft types before moving to Maui in 2010," Fletcher said.
Wounded Warrior Waveriders Association
His goal is to transport at least 50 wounded warriors per year to Maui for an all-expenses-paid vacation, bringing the joy of surfing to America's veterans. While not an amputee himself, Fletcher knows first-hand about the physical and mental scars war can leave on a soldier.
"I was proud to be a Marine," said Fletcher. "However, after learning certain truths about Vietnam, my pride changed to guilt. Having personally dropped more than my share of bombs as a pilot during the Vietnam War, I soon afterward found myself with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)."
Many veterans, physically wounded or not, discover that the need for exceptional courage does not end when the war ends.
Fletcher's severe guilt feelings were caused by the fact that many, if not most of the bombs he dropped, killed people and wildlife indiscriminately.
"It's the plummeting of cluster bombs on Laos that disturbs me most, because of the harm that is still being inflicted on innocent civilians," he explained.
Cluster bombs, the type Fletcher used, release many small "bomblets" over a wide area. They pose a risk to civilians both during attacks and afterwards. Unexploded "bomblets" can kill or maim civilians long after a conflict has ended, and are costly to locate and remove.
After returning from Vietnam, Fletcher was not the same person he was before delivering high explosives on Laos and Vietnam.
"I felt emotionally cut off from others, including the woman I married," he said. "I barely knew the son I had just months before I was deployed to Vietnam."
Following various hardships and depression, Fletcher ended up in a small town near San Francisco, where he came very close to taking his own life.
"I called the VA hospital in San Francisco and began two years of one-on-one therapy with a VA psychologist," he said.
There are thousands of mentally and physically wounded veterans throughout the U.S. Since the Vietnam War, advocates for veterans have spent decades pressing the Pentagon and society to recognize the mental and physical effects of war and the scope of PTSD. Activists see progress, but say that the nation still does too little to support soldiers in crisis. We live in a time when too many veterans commit suicide, as they suffer from severe shell shock, nervous conditions, amputations and depression.
"Once I came to Maui and got on a paddleboard, I felt peace and freedom," said Fletcher, recalling his immediate spiritual connection to the water and the island.
"Riding on a wave, one is in the moment and the mind is quiet," he explained. "Thought is replaced by pure sensory experience, which is one of the main reasons to get the veterans to Maui and on our paddleboards."
"This is my own atonement for the Southeast Asia War," said Fletcher, certain that those who lost a lower extremity limb could take advantage of the same kind of healing he experienced.
The novice paddleboard is large, allowing extra width for stability, with a soft top and Velcro restraining strap to allow the surfer to pivot at the waist if needed. It allows the opportunity to paddle around Maui without assistance, providing both physical and mental benefits.
"Sitting on the board, you have a lower center of gravity, which means more stability," Fletcher said.
The custom paddle is composed of two standup paddles joined together. The much larger surface area of the blades and longer shaft--about 95 inches instead of 60 inches--increases power output by at least 25 to 30 percent.
"This translates to easier ability to catch waves and speed enough to compete with the standup paddlers," Fletcher said. "Just to get the wounded in the water is remarkable. Plus, catching waves is one of the ultimate healing experiences to provide our warriors with a positive, therapeutic, feel-good skill."
Fletcher sends a big thank you to those in the community who are currently supporting and donating their services to the WWWRA. He cited Costco, Safeway, Whole Foods and Maui Wave Riders in Kihei, organizations, hotels and private individuals as generous contributors.
"We need continuing financial assistance, wheelchair friendly accommodations, ground transportation, hotels and restaurants," he said. "Please help us put a smile on another wounded warrior. All donations are tax deductible."
For more information and to donate, go to www.wwwra.org. Call (808) 633-4938.