Hope for warriors

Eric Morante a wounded veteran exults as he sails in Charleston harbor Friday with College of Charleston Sailing team.

Jacob Raymond stands on the stern of the small 22-foot sailboat and looks toward the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge as a pod of dolphins surface about 50 yards off the vessel's port side.

The three-man crew - consisting of retired and active-duty military veterans - turn their heads just in time to see the dozen or so dorsal fins break the water's surface Friday morning in Charleston Harbor.

Arturo Weber, 27, a former lance corporal in the Marines, can't help but giggle.

"That never gets old," said Raymond, an assistant dock master for the College of Charleston's nationally ranked sailing team.

Raymond has spent the past three days volunteering with Hope for the Warriors - a national organization that assists military veterans who have suffered physical and psychological wounds in the line of duty.

Raymond was one of three College of Charleston instructors working with more than a dozen veterans during the three-day sailing clinic.

It's a cause close to Raymond's heart.

The 28-year-old College of Charleston senior English major is a veteran, having served in Iraq as a military police officer in the Army National Guard during his year-long deployment in 2007. He was in Iraq for just a couple of months when a roadside bomb exploded next to the Humvee he was riding in.

Raymond escaped with minor injuries, suffering a few cuts, bruises and a concussion. He was back on duty the next day.

It was nothing compared with what happened to many of his sailing students during their tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Raymond understands firsthand the challenges that face veterans returning to civilian life after a deployment. His own transition back to civilian life was filled with potholes.

"My first year back from Iraq was pretty rocky, so I have a small idea of what some of these guys have been through. But not to the extent of most of them," Raymond said. "I felt detached from society and really had some issues reconnecting with even some of my closest friends here in Charleston."

Raymond was looking for direction when he returned from Iraq and discovered sailing almost by accident. He barely knew a jib sheet from a clothesline, but former College of Charleston dock master Collin Bentley took a chance on Raymond, giving the Greenville native a job on the school's dock.

Raymond found his calling.

"A program like this means the world to me," Raymond said. "I know what sailing has meant to me and how much it helped me. ... To be able to give something back to these guys has been a huge privilege and honor for me."

Each morning for the past three days, Raymond and the other instructors spent about 30 minutes in the classroom teaching their eager students the fundamentals of sailing.

"The guys have been so much fun to work with," Raymond said. "They want to learn and they're having a blast out on the water."

Weber, a native of Chico, Calif., a small farming community an hour's drive north of Sacramento, said he is hooked on the sport. Weber was hit by a sniper's bullet in 2007 in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. The bullet sliced through his midsection. After more than a year in the hospital and 90 surgeries, Weber is trying to experience things outside his comfort zone. This was his first time on a sailboat.

"Never thought I'd ever get to learn how to sail," Weber said. "It's something that I never really thought about doing, but it's been such a great experience."

Eric Morante, 29, a former sergeant in the Marines, has been involved with Hope for the Warriors for about two years. Morante has taken part in several of the organization's programs, including boxing and triathlons, but like Weber, this was his first experience with sailing.

In 2007, Morante's squad was on a bridge when a dump truck full of more than a ton of explosives pulled underneath his position and exploded. Morante lost his right leg just above the knee, plus suffered several skull fractures and a broken wrist. He has a prosthetic leg and has gone through 19 surgeries.

"Anything I can do to be active is great," said Morante, who is training for a para-Olympic boxing match. "We've all had a second chance at life, and I'm trying to make the most of it. Sailing is a great workout. I thought coming in, learning how to sail was going to be daunting, but the instructors made everything really easy. It's been so amazing to be out on the water. When the wind is in your face and you feel that sea breeze, it's an indescribable feeling. I can't put it into words."

Charles Kennedy, 41, grew up in York, Pa., but his parents are from Berkeley County. Kennedy was a sergeant in the Army from 1995-2013. Kennedy said he was lucky to get through his two deployments with only minor injuries.

Coming to Charleston during the summers when he was young, Kennedy had always wanted to buy his own boat.

"I've always had a dream of owning my own boat and sailing up the Intracoastal Waterway," Kennedy said. "I always wanted to learn the traditional way of boating, especially on a sailboat. Anyone can drive a motor boat, but it takes skill and hard work to sail."

The best part of the clinic?

That's easy, the racing.

"You learn in the classroom and then take what you've learned and apply it on the water," Morante said. "We're all pretty competitive and we all want to win. We were in third place in one race and came back and won it at the end. That was the best feeling."

Reach Andrew Miller at 937-5599.