Veterans swim with dolphins in Florida Keys for mental health

For U.S. Air Force veteran Bill Thomas, riding across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys alongside other veterans — feeling the breeze, breathing in the salty ocean air and enjoying the gorgeous view — felt like therapy.

It was also part of a mental health program.

The Jacksonville man was one of 14 veterans who spent time in the Florida Keys last week as part of Wounded Warrior Project’s “Rolling Project Odyssey,” a mental health program sponsored by Harley-Davidson that helps warriors recovering from invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other combat stress.

For five days, the group of veterans rode their motorcycles throughout the island chain, swam with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, visited the Key West Veterans Memorial Garden at Bayview Park and made pit stops at the Peterson’s Harley-Davidson locations in Key West and Cutler Bay.

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Retired military veterans applaud dolphin behaviors Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, at Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Fla.The vets participated in a Wounded Warrior Project event called Rolling Project Odyssey designed as therapy for emotional and mental rehabilitation for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The five-day event through the Keys, that included the interaction session with marine mammals at Dolphin Research Center on Thursday. (Steve Panariello/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO) Steve Panariello Florida Keys News Bureau

The activities were part of a larger partnership between Wounded Warrior Project, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit, and Harley-Davidson called Project Odyssey that uses adventure-based learning to help warriors manage and overcome invisible wounds. The 12-week mental health program takes veterans out of the comfort of their everyday routine and uses those new experiences to help them develop coping and communication skills.

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Veterans park up after riding their motorcycles from Marathon to Peterson’s Harley-Davidson South as part of a Wounded Warrior Project mental health program, “Rolling Project Odyssey”, in Cutler Bay, Florida, on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. The group stopped at the Harley-Davidson dealer to get a tour of the facilities. Daniel A. Varela [email protected]

For 61-year-old Thomas, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2008, cruising across the Keys with other veterans — a mixture of the different branches of the U.S. Armed Forces — was an opportunity to forget about life’s challenges and “be in the moment.”

“There are family issues, you know, daily issues that happen in life, but being in this particular event and in such a beautiful setting took some of that away,” Thomas said. “It allowed me to recharge and get myself prepared for when I get back home and deal with the day-to-day life struggles and mental health issues.”

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Veteran Prince Grant speaks with a sales associate while he browses for bikes after he rode his motorcycle from Marathon to Peterson’s Harley-Davidson South as part of a Wounded Warrior Project mental health program, “Rolling Project Odyssey”, in Cutler Bay, Florida, on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. The group stopped at the Harley-Davidson dealer to get a tour of the facilities. Daniel A. Varela [email protected]

The motorcycle aficionado has been riding since his parents bought him a mini-bike at age 10. His first motorcycle was a Harley-Davidson. And every time he’s on a bike, it’s “wind therapy,” he said.

The retired Master Sergeant is proud of how much his mental health has improved since he joined the Wounded Warrior Project, but his road to recovery hasn’t been easy.

Thomas was deployed to Saudi Arabia in 2002 and then to Iraq in 2007. He also served as an officer with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey. There are moments from his 20 years of service in the military that Thomas can’t forget, like when he saw a K9 killed and his handler injured during an explosion in Iraq.

“All of the things that I have experienced over the many years just kind of caught up to me,” Thomas said. “So when I came home, I thought I was the same person, but it didn’t take long to find out that you know, I had serious, serious issues that needed to be addressed.”

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Air Force Veteran Bill Thomas, 61. Wounded Warrior Project

He later added: “As a kid I used to run around my apartment with a towel clasped around my neck thinking, ‘I’m Superman.’ So that’s how I grew up. Growing up in an urban environment, you know, you had to have that macho attitude and things like that. So to actually realize that I had issues, I wasn’t Superman. It kind of broke me down.”

In 2009, Thomas attempted suicide and was admitted to the hospital for treatment. There he met another veteran who introduced him to the Wounded Warrior Project. Thomas is convinced that moment saved his life.

Now, as Thomas continues working on his mental health, he’s encouraging other veterans to find the support they need, whether it’s through the VA, the Wounded Warrior Project or other available service or support group.

“If you ever look at the Wounded Warrior Project logo, you see that there is a service member carrying another service member on their shoulder. I was the guy on top at one time,” Thomas said. “Now, I’m that warrior on the bottom.”

Resources for Veterans

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Veterans take a group photo after they rode their motorcycles from Marathon to Peterson’s Harley-Davidson South as part of a Wounded Warrior Project mental health program, “Rolling Project Odysseyâ€, in Cutler Bay, Florida, on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. The group stopped at the Harley-Davidson dealer to get a tour of the facilities. Daniel A. Varela [email protected]

National Veteran Crisis 24/7 Hotline — Call 800-273-8255 then select 1. You can also text 838255 or call TTY 800-799-4889. Confidential chat also available online at mentalhealth.va.gov.

Florida Veterans Support Line — 844-MyFLVet (693-5838) or 211

Wounded Warrior Project — For a list of resources available to post-9/11 veteran members, visit https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs

Miami VA Mental Health Access Line (this is an informational line on what mental health services are available) call 305-575-3214

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There’s never a dull moment in Florida — and Michelle covers it as a Real Time/Breaking News Reporter for the Miami Herald. She graduated with honors from Florida International University, where she served as the editor-in-chief of Student Media PantherNOW. Previously, she worked as a news writer at WSVN Channel 7 and was a 2020-2021 Poynter-Koch Media & Journalism fellow.

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