Retired Air Force Sgts. Phil and Heather Erickson sailed for the first time on White Bear Lake this May.

They took off on an Aquarius 23-footer with the lake's only American Sailing Association (ASA) instructor, Tim Black.

Black, a White Bear Lake resident who grew up sailing on the St. Croix River, has been teaching 10 years for Northern Breezes Sailing School, which has several locations in Minnesota. It was his first time bringing out veterans with the express purpose of determining how sailing can be therapeutic for those who have gone through trauma while serving their country. It's part of a new ASA program, Operation Vet Sail: A Salute at Sea, intended to combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Ericksons, of East Bethel, retired after each served 20 years with the Air Force. They met while in training. The couple signed up for sailing lessons with the dream of moving south and traveling the Caribbean on a sailboat later in their retirement.

They received a $100 discount because they are veterans. Thom Burns, the owner of Northern Breezes Sailing School, has offered military veterans sailing lesson discounts for about a decade. The ASA's new program was inspired in part by his generosity and how he has seen sailing bring healing to veterans. Burns, a retired Navy officer, drove ships for 10 years. He's been sailing for 40 years.

Heather, who worked in counterintelligence, said after an hour on the water that she believes sailing can be beneficial for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She witnessed firsthand the aftermath of trauma many veterans face when deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. She investigated IED (improvised explosive device) sites where military members died. Sailing requires concentration that helps prevent someone from having flashbacks.

“It keeps you in the now,” she noted. “You have to stay present.” The peace and quiet and lack of traffic and loud noises is also helpful. “It helps kind of to keep you centered,” she said. Although the Ericksons didn't take up sailing with the purpose to heal from trauma, they both experienced how it could be beneficial for veterans. Even something as simple as a highway overpass can cause flashbacks for a veteran, Phil noted. Out on the open water, there seemed to be no triggers for PTSD. Instead, the peace of nature surrounded them.

“I find this endlessly fascinating — the sky and the clouds, the wind and the waves,” noted their instructor, Black. “Every day is different.”

Phil was a meteorologist in the Air Force. His weather-predicting skills will come in handy for sailing.

Burns said he has observed that today's veterans return more stressed than the days of his deployments. He said this may be because of multiple deployments over a short period of time. But he's seen how sailing can be therapeutic. It's a time to experience peace, he noted, and just listen to the waves on the boat. It also gives veterans a chance to rebuild their leadership skills by taking charge of the vessel. He enjoys listening to veterans’ stories when he teaches.

“It creates a nice environment where people can live without stress, even if it's only a few hours,” Burns said.

According to ASA, studies show that veterans heal through exposure to nature and the sea. A treatment named Nature Adventure Rehabilitation revealed after a year of sailing lessons, 22 veterans with PTSD demonstrated significantly lower PTSD and depression scores and higher social and emotional quality of life scores. The Boat Is Sailing, an Israeli nonprofit that takes veterans with PTSD sailing, models their program after a 2007 Israeli study that shows veterans experience a decrease in depression and functional problems along with improved self-esteem.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD each year.

ASA schools will offer active and retired military members and their immediate families discounts for sailing instruction and certification through Veterans Day this year. ASA has 350 professionally accredited sailing schools across the world. Discounted rates will vary by location. For more information, visit asa.com/veterans/schools/.

Northern Breezes has four locations in the Twin Cities — Lake Minnetonka, Medicine Lake, White Bear Lake and the St. Croix River at Afton. Burns also teaches lessons with large boats on Lake Superior. For more information visit http://northernbreezessailing.com/.

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