VERO BEACH, Fla. — In this country, one veteran dies by suicide every 65 minutes. And on the Treasure Coast in Florida, a man is working to let those at risk know they are not alone and help is out there.
Military veteran Kevin Klepac feels most at home on the water
“I grew up down here. I grew up fishing this power plant right here in Vero Beach. I used to walk to it every day after school and go fishing from it,” he said.
Klepac is retired from the U.S. Army now, where he served as an Airborne Ranger First Sergeant, but while he was active duty at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, being on the water still brought him peace.
"Just being out here kinda melts the day away," he added.
Klepac wanted to share that feeling with others and invited several soldiers for a fishing trip and unknowingly ended up finding his passion, helping service members deal with wounds we can’t see.
"I didn't think nothing of it and then he stopped me and he said, 'No, really thank you.' And I said, 'Well, what’s going on?' And he was just like, 'Well, I was going to go home and kill myself.' And that really hit me really and because suicide in the military is just astronomical."
And so, Wounded Waters was born, a nonprofit group helping fight mental illness among veterans finding themselves lost in the transition to civilian life.
According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 500,000 U.S. troops who served Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the past 13 years screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), veterans like Ingrid Hernandez.
"It was a relief because I feel like a lot of times, there's a misconception on how you look, how you present yourself. Well put together, have a job, have a great family, but inside, your heart is just broken in pieces and you feel there’s nowhere to go," Hernandez said.
She’s not alone. Hernandez, a Bronze Star recipient and Iraq War veteran, has been on multiple Wounded Waters trips and said it works.
“It’s just freeing, literally, when he puts it full throttle, put your head back, let the wind hit your hair, and you just feel relaxed,” said Hernandez.
Feeling empowered, Hernandez now organizes her own PTSD support group for those dealing with similar issues.
Tom Metzinger, a Marine Corps veteran and current therapist, said he also works with veterans after seeing like-minded veterans show up for him when he needed it the most.
"In my last two years of being in, I had some darker times and got involved pretty heavily with substance abuse, and I started getting some treatment through the military and the guys who were in were veterans," Metzinger said.
Last year, Klepac took 94 veterans and first responders out on his boat and this year, so far, he's at 72 with plenty of room for more.
Metzinger said what Klepac offers goes beyond the therapy couch and into the real world.
"This is where it’s at, you know? Going out in town helping, you can have groups and you can have therapy sessions all day long, but the magic really happens when we join together when we actually go out and live life," Metzinger said.
Getting vets out of the dark and on the water, Klepac said it makes a huge difference.
"Just to be able to get them, to connect to people because PTSD and suicide, it’s a huge thing and just the littlest thing or littlest gesture could save someone’s life and you never know about it."
The man and his boat are turning the tide on the troubling problem.
For more information about Wounded Waters, click here.
If you or somebody you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. You can also click here.
This story was originally published by Chris Gilmore at WPTV.