Winds cooperated just enough recently for a group of disabled U.S. veterans to set sail on Lake Minnetonka.
Michelle Frazier says she lives just a “stone’s throw” from Lake Minnetonka. Frazier served in the U.S. Air Force for much of the 1980s and said she moved to Minnesota years ago because of the state’s good reputation for veteran care.
After a large aviation computer fell on her (she thinks in 1987), Frazier can only take short walks with the help of a cane and requires a wheelchair for travel of any measurable distance.
“Pain is my main issue,” she said.
But Frazier was one of about a half dozen disabled veterans enjoying a dinner spread last week at the Wayzata Yacht Club and preparing to climb aboard a sailboat. Fraizer says staying active is critical to her quality of life and that she has found a welcoming outlet with the Wayzata Community Sailing Center, where she has attained a sort of celebrity status.
“I’ve been coming out here whenever there’s an opportunity,” she said.
Frazier and several other vets sailing last week all credited the same man with making the night possible.
Ernest Brody is Director of Adaptive Sailing for the Wayzata Community Sailing Center, and he has teamed up with the Courage Center to take veterans sailing on Lake Minnetonka throughout the summer. The partnership has been made possible thanks to Operation Liberty, a Department of Defense (DoD) campaign to keep the nation’s disabled vets active as they age.
“It’s not only people in wheelchairs,” Brody said. “We have amputees, there are several blind people here tonight, and we’ve also served people with Asberger’s Spectrum Disorder. It’s lots of things.”
Brisk winds and some choppy water had Brody and other sailing center volunteers questioning whether last week’s conditions would allow a cast off. It wasn’t the first time this year that weather had threatened Brody’s plans.
“A month ago we tried and couldn’t sail because of the same situation—too much wind,” he said.
Brody stressed last week’s sail was part of the Wayzata Community Sailing Center’s multi-pronged approach at exposing sailing to all members of the surrounding community, with a bit of admitted focus on disabled U.S. service members.
Vets like Rick Kerr, who has lived most of his life in the Hopkins/Minnetonka area and says he’s spent countless hours on Lake Minnetonka over the years. Kerr is also a former Marine who spent parts of the late 1970s and early 1980s in El Salvador. He suffers from several service-related injuries.
Last week was Kerr’s first sail with the Wayzata Sailing Center, but he spends several days each summer butterfly sailing with a friend near Clearwater. He said finding a chance to sail so close to home had given him something to get excited about.
“It’s really nice to get invited out to something like this,” Kerr said. “When I heard about Operation Liberty and the chance to come out here sailing with Ernest, I knew it was something I couldn’t turn down.”
Like most of vets in Wayzata last week, Kerr is a patient at the Courage Center, which has several Minnesota locations and specializes in treating complex health conditions.
“The Courage Center is where angels are made,” Kerr said. “A lot of miracles are performed there. A lot of people you’ll see go in riding a wheelchair and come out on their own two feet.”
John Heubach is legally blind but still volunteers at the Courage Center.
Heubach remembers fishing on Lake Minnetonka during his youth and fondly recalled memories of Big Island. He joined the military as a young man and served about four years in the Coast Guard, with large chunks of time spent in “police actions” near southeast Asia—where he said American forces never officially operated.
In 1969 he was home on leave when a drunk driver struck his car and changed his life forever. Heubach doesn’t remember much about the accident but woke up at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park to learn he’d broken his back and that his sight had been seriously damaged.
Still on active duty, he was flown by the military to Great Lake Naval Hospital.
Fast forward four decades, and Heubach is happily married and living in Golden Valley. His work at the Courage Center allows him to stay close to service veterans and play a part in providing chances for vets to do things like sail on Lake Minnetonka.
Editor's note: The Wayzata Community Sailing Center will be conducting classes throughout the summer for an assortment of sailors. Additionally, Brody says he wants to start an adaptive sailing racing team by the end of the season. A few of the vets have already expressed interest in joining. The Wayzata Community Sailing Center is associated with but operates as a nonprofit and independently from the Wayzata Yacht Club.