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US Air Force veterans offer hope in Atlantic Ocean rowing adventure

The rowing adventure, known as the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, is an east-to-west race that begins in La Gomera, Spain, and ends in Antigua.

SUPERIOR, Wis. — Big boats have often embarked on big trips from Superior, Wisconsin’s docks, but a much smaller craft, sporting a shark-like grin, has been navigating the Lake Superior port this summer as the crew trains for more adventure than most would want to chew – rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

“Why not?” quips Nick Rahn with a smile, while seated in a sliding chair and rowing at a dependable rhythm that can help propel the 28-foot boat, which looks more like an oversized canoe, at up to 5 knots.

But don’t mistake Rahn’s rhetorical response for a purposeless endeavor. His personal compass has a clear bearing.

Rahn, who is from St. Paul, is the founder of Warriors Next Adventure, which supports veterans by fighting PTSD and offering crisis intervention. Rahn and three group members — all U.S. Air Force veterans — make up the crew that intends to row some 50 days, give or take, and 3,000 miles to inspire veterans to live with purpose.

“What we’re trying to do is make waves and show other veterans what we can do. So, our thing is after service is over, it doesn’t mean the adventure is over,” Rahn says.

The rowing adventure, known as the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, is an east-to-west race that begins in La Gomera, Spain, and ends in Antigua. Rowers can face up to 20-foot-high waves, according to the Atlantic Challenge’s website.

Rowing personal rough seas

But the Atlantic’s waves can pale next to rough personal waters that veterans face after their service, according to the rowing team members.

“For me, it was the re-integration back into civilian life after getting out,” recalls Will Janssen of Webster, Wisconsin. “I don’t know, you just go through certain things, and then you get out, and there’s little structure; there’s little comradery.”

Tommy Hester of Omaha, Nebraska, adds, “Everybody was on the same mission. Once you’re out, that’s gone.”

After four deployments and memories from Afghanistan and Iraq, Rahn found himself at rock bottom in 2015 and attempted suicide.

“I loaded well over 5,000 rounds of ammunition. That’s the only misfire I’ve ever had, so it’s very apparent that it wasn’t supposed to go off,” Rahn says.

That was a watershed moment in Rahn’s life.

“I didn’t want to be that anymore. I wanted to change who I was, and I wanted to change my future, and I told myself the person who could’ve saved me didn’t exist. So, I was going to create that person, and now I get to be that person for all my friends.

Rahn’s group, Warriors Next Adventure, grew out of that experience. It uses adventures, like mountain climbing, to give veterans purpose, hope and, ultimately, life.

His third rowing crew member, Chad Miller from Buffalo, New York, found hope in adventure.

“It actually brought me back from a dark place, climbing a mountain and helping Nick out and becoming a part of Warriors Next Adventure,” Miller recalls.

Rahn spreads the word about the group through a weekly online broadcast, called Veterans Action Report. He also uses his personal phone as a suicide hotline that he says has not lost a soul – 108 lives saved.

“When I take a suicide call, I essentially go right back to that day that I attempted suicide, and I just talk to myself. I tell them what I wish somebody would have told me,” Rahn says.

Rowing for life

The transatlantic rowing adventure carries the same message – live.

In carrying out that message, Rahn’s Warriors Next Adventure team has joined forces with the veterans’ support group Fight Oar Die, using its vessel.

The boat has two sliding, rowing chairs, and the four-man crew will row on a two-hours-on, two-hours-off schedule. Trading rowing chairs requires a coordinated move that keeps the boat level.

Cramped, covered spaces provide sleeping quarters at both ends. Dehydrated food will fuel the rowers.

“We’re going to bring about, for easy math, 5,000 calories per person, per day,” Hester says.

But the crew will not be bringing the convenience of home or a bigger boat.

“You do your business in the bucket, and you chuck her overboard,” Janssen says.

Sounds daunting until you consider the crew’s mission.

“If you knew you could save or inspire one person from committing suicide, or being depressed, like what are you willing to do to save them? This is what we are willing to do,” Janssen says.

Hester adds, “If a guy that lives in Omaha can go row a boat across an ocean, everybody can go row their personal ocean.”

While Rahn and the guys hope to set a record on their journey, ultimately, they are offering an inspirational life raft to veterans.

“I was lucky enough to get a second chance, and I decided that I was just going to utilize that second chance to try to inspire as many people as I can.”

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