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Using nature to heal veterans

W - Water dogs

The Warriors division of Irish Water Dogs takes North Florida veterans on nature excursions.

HIGH SPRINGS – Tony St. Angelo, currently in his mid-30s, joined the U.S. Army in 2004, working at Arlington National Cemetery. Even though he never saw combat, he still had personal battles to fight.

“Everybody individually has their issues,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be combat-related.”

St. Angelo said he’s gone through dark times, but asked not to be more specific than that.

For him, his healing came in the form of a program he learned about at the Gainesville Veteran’s Hospital.

Irish Water Dogs Warriors was started about three years ago in Jacksonville, Fla. The program takes veterans on a trip to nature the first Sunday of every month.

“Being on the water is incredibly healing,” said David McDaid, founder of the program. “I’ve seen miracle transformations with this program.”

Veterans who were physically or mentally injured on or off the battlefield and veterans who just want to enjoy a day on the Santa Fe River show up. Current and former service members fighting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction or dealing with bodily damage go kayaking, fishing, hiking, snorkeling or spend the day shooting nature films and snapping photos.

After five months of running the High Springs chapter from Jacksonville, the organization opened a headquarters in Alachua County in January.

McDaid started the Irish Water Dogs about seven years ago as a commercial venture for outdoor. When he decided to use his network to help veterans, he set up the first chapter of the nonprofit Warriors division in Jacksonville. Soon after, they expanded to Tampa, Miami, South Carolina, Virginia and Idaho. Now, there are 16 chapters spread across nine states. Across the country, the Irish Water Dog Warriors takes out between 1,100 to 1,200 vets each month.

“Each chapter focuses on something that is unique to the geography,” McDaid said. For High Springs, the rivers and springs are the heart of the activities.

In the morning when the vets arrive, they are unsure about the day, he said.

“We ask them what they want to do that day,” McDaid said. “If they want to go fishing, we buy them bait. By the end of the day, you can see the transformation. It’s high fives and fist bumps.”

People of all ages have come for the outings, he said. “We have guys in the program that are 19 and 20, all the way through vets from Vietnam and Korea. We even have one that is 89 years old. He’s a World War II vet.”

When Tony St. Angelo started participating in the program about five months ago, he was able to finally branch out into a passion he’d had for a long time. He was interested in nature videography, and said he always had a dream of being a National Geographic videographer. McDaid said he got him a camera and a waterproof bag to take with him on the excursions.

“I’ve made tremendous progress,” St. Angelo said about his videography techniques.  

Being on the water has helped him learn to enjoy what life has to offer, he said, helping him through personal problems.

McDaid has seen similar progress among others.

“Being outdoors has consumed them,” he said. “To find something that consumes them that is not anguish or hurt is an incredible thing.”

Each chapter of Irish Water Dogs Warriors is sustained largely by that community, and individuals or businesses can donate or sponsor their chapter, McDaid said.

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