Seeking peace at sea

“From being crazy to more or less normal, I credit the sailboat for being normal,” said veteran Angelo Allessandro, who sailed Friday afternoon in the Ashley River with fellow Army veteran Don Pinnacle (left).

Some of the horrors Navy veteran Angelo Alessandro saw during wartime never seemed to leave.

He had been in Vietnam firefights and worked as a civilian truck driver in Iraq. Nightmares were seldom far from his thoughts.

“I was trying but I couldn’t deal with life,” he said. “I was staying in the house just going crazy.”

One day, he picked up a .22 rifle and began yelling to his neighbors in Ladson, telling them he was out of ammo.

“At the time to me, I was really back in Vietnam,” he said. “And I was doing it all over again.”

Life improved, though, after he went back to the sea.

Down on the Ashley River docks, Alessandro, 69, and scores of others suffering from post-traumatic stress are getting therapy that, by all accounts, is working better than expected.

For several hours each week, men whose previous accomplishment might be to spend a few moments in a noisy department store are learning to sail and, at the same time, learning to be social again.

“What we haven’t been too great at is getting these guys reconnected to the community,” said Ron Acierno, a professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and the executive director of the nonprofit sailing program Veterans On Deck.

One avenue back, he said, is these sailboats.

Modeled after the independence-building challenges favored by the British military, the idea behind “Veterans on Deck” is surprisingly simple.

At some point in their careers, members of the Royal officer corps go off to test themselves in situations of self-sufficiency, such as desert hikes, mountain climbs or long ocean voyages. Two years ago, three 67-foot sail boats crewed by Royal Air Force, Army and Navy personnel arrived in Charleston.

Several of them were amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They more than managed.

“That kind of jump-started us,” said Acierno, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder clinic at the VA Medical Center and an avid recreational sailor.

Charleston, as a military town, already had its share of PTSD patients. Some in the program are from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and come as young as 24. Others, like Alessandro, come from the Vietnam era.

Many of the men suffering from PTSD who go sailing already are far into their treatment. One thing holding them back is that they don’t want to go anywhere or engage with others. That’s where the boats are called upon.

In terms of a therapeutic atmosphere, the Ashley River Marina where the group meets provides ready-made noises and distractions. Birds shriek above, anchor chains rattle on docks and vehicles on the James Island connector rumble and backfire.

The din isn’t dangerous but contributes toward the “constructive stress” that goes with sailing.

Each boat in the program — a 28-foot Hunter, a 28-foot O’Day and a 19-foot Bristol, all part of donations supplied by program supporters — gets crewed by a combination of veterans suffering from PTSD and volunteer vets who come in with a clean bill of mental health. The idea is to welcome the men into the social nature of sailing.

Even more challenging is finding that special balance of what it takes to get six or seven men unfamiliar with each other, but schooled in military training, to work together to get a sailboat moving.

“If you face the social stress and you work together,” Acierno said, “the boat will go.”

And if everything goes right, there’s enjoyment instead of anxiety.

“It just kind of happens naturally,” said Marine Corps veteran Russ Crane, 72, of Kiawah Island, one of the program volunteers.

There are three types of sails in the program — one for those in the PTSD group; one for women, largely victims of sexual trauma while in the military; and another for veterans needing severe treatments for addictions or other forms of mental disorders.

One of the more remarkable rewards Crane said he has experienced was when a female sailor felt comfortable enough to go out on a men’s sail.

On Friday afternoon, Phillip Collins, 26, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, made his first sail with the program. Twenty minutes after leaving the dock he was abruptly put in charge of the helm of the 28-foot Hunter, taking over without a lesson and virtually no knowledge of boats.

That’s when his problem-solving impulse took over to keep the boat on a straight course.

Twenty minutes later, and after some encouraging words, Collins was guiding the boat in the difficult “wing on wing” position in which the two sails are spread out in front of the boat like two bird wings.

“Just being around people who know where I’m coming from,” was his takeaway from the day.

While Collins was enjoying success, a second sailboat in the program had run aground in front of Plum Island, illustrating the unpredictable nature of every sail.

There are success stories. Some of the participants have become comfortable on the boats, spending hours to keep them in shape. Some have helped others move boats up and down the coast. Others, like Alessandro, have gone on to get their captain’s license so they can skipper for others.

“After two hours of sailing, I came back and I felt really good for the first time in a couple of years,” Alessandros said, recalling his initial sail.

Pat Timms, another program sailor, served in the Army medical corps in Vietnam from 1970-73. He said he suffered in silence for years, recalling that it wasn’t until 1994 that he had even heard the term PTSD. “You didn’t feel like you fit in anywhere,” he said.

Taking to the boats, he said, “has been a godsend to me” in terms of regaining his life.

“Every little movement, every inch of rope, makes a difference.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551. Follow on Twitter at skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.