By Jade Neptune
Special to The Sway
On Aug. 6, Lake Tahoe was calm. The water was barely rippled and crystal clear. The air was chilly and thin. It was still, but not for long. Soon, a group of 10 first responders, service members and veterans would arrive from Moore County and across the country to the water’s edge, ready to embark on Open Water’s annual Lake Tahoe Retreat.
Open Water is a nonprofit that helps build community for military veterans and first responders through open water adventures. The Tahoe retreat is a fully funded seven–day experience that focuses on physical training and building fellowship among attendees through paddleboarding, canoeing and free diving.
Open Water was founded by Kyle Kelly, whose story of healing began on the water.
A former combat engineer in the U.S. Army, Kyle specialized in demolition. In September 2007, he hit a large explosive device while on duty and was seriously injured. He is now a below-knee amputee.
“While I was in physical therapy, we actually had a recreational therapist who said ‘hey, we have this event in March where we bring some of the folks who are going through physical therapy out to surf on the West coast of California,’” he said.
While on the trip, Kyle met Danny Nichols, the current chair of Open Water.
“Danny was probably one of the first real bonds — as silly as it sounds — on the civilian side, real bonds that I had after I got out of the Army,” Kyle said. “He wasn’t a veteran, he had no military background in his family or anything, we just stayed close.”
Kyle said was appreciative of the thousands of veteran services organizations that were available to him as a combat veteran — but he realized there were very few organizations that addressed the same issues of PTSD and trauma in the first responder community.
As Kyle and Danny grew closer on and off the water, one of the first ideas they had was to bring the veteran and first responder communities together, crossing from Catalina Island to Huntington Beach, California, on stand-up paddleboards.
“On my end, there are a lot of experiences about war that suck,” Kyle said. “Things that you are never going to forget that are going to live with you for the rest of your life. The benefit that I have as a soldier is when I deploy, I’m there for 12 months on average, I get to come home.
“For a firefighter, or for a law enforcement officer or for a paramedic, that intersection where you just worked a car accident that was fatal, you’re driving through that same intersection the next day to drop your kids off at school.”
That first channel crossing in November 2019, Kyle said, ultimately led to the founding of Open Water as an official 501(c)(3) organization. This November, the group will complete the 32-mile paddle from Catalina Island to Huntington Beach.
Making Connections on Lake Pinehurst
For Nash Neptune, a Southern Pines firefighter and EMT, Open Water and the Lake Tahoe retreat came at a perfect time.
“[Open Water] kind of found me,” Nash said. “I was going through a relatively hard time in my life with the loss of a friend that I worked with at the fire department, and some traumatic calls that were sticking with me when a fellow fireman from Southern Pines, JR Southers, reached out and asked if I would be interested.”
Nash and many other new members were unfamiliar with the history of Open Water, but almost immediately bonded with the existing cohort they joined in training. Over the course of many summer evenings, local members would meet at Lake Pinehurst to paddleboard together, creating bonds that bolstered the Lake Tahoe trip in August to the formative week that it was.
“The group that was there was made up of some of the most amazing individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Nash said. “It is one of the tightest knit groups and families and I am very lucky to be a part of it.”
Whitney Erickson, an administrative specialist for Open Water, joined the group in Lake Tahoe for the second year this summer, after experiencing the loss of a close friend to suicide.
“In a room full of people like that, when you talk about something like that, everybody in the room has been through it — which is not what you want for people,” she said. “But when you’re going through it yourself, it’s the best place for you to be.”
From watching attendees conquer fears and make progress on the water to sharing stories and memories each night, the relationships made were her favorite part, said Brooke Thomas, the East Coast Director for Open Water.
On the last night in Lake Tahoe, the air was still chilly and thin, but the moon was full.
“We all decided to take a walk to the beach and we all got in the water and it was freezing,” Brooke said. “[Nash, Whitney and I] swam back to the group because we realized the moon was about to come over the mountains and we were all separate and freezing, standing on our own little rocks shivering, and then [another attendee] out of nowhere was like ‘group snuggle! Everyone get together!’ We all got together and held onto each other like little lifeboats.”
Though the Lake Tahoe retreat was only 7 days long, their Open Water experience is far from over.
If Jake Green, a Green Beret in the U.S. Army and an Open Water board member, has one piece of advice ahead of the “crown jewel of the program,” it is simple.
“They all know it. I’m not a man of very many words, but everyone that’s chosen has a certain mindset,” Jake said. “They all know. Just don’t quit. Everybody is gonna make it.”
For information on Open Water, visit OperationOpenWater.org.