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Bay area boat trips give wounded veterans moments of freedom

CLEARWATER BEACH — Having served seven years in the Navy, Leon Jose has seen plenty of dolphins. For him, the day's boat ride was more about spending some time outdoors and away from the confinement of hospital walls.

The 27-year-old is nearing the end of rehabilitation for a brain injury he suffered last year while home on leave. Joining him last week on a dolphin tour in the Gulf of Mexico were nine other wounded veterans from the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.

Marilyn and Bryan Custer made the trip possible through their nonprofit group, Freedom Excursions. They created the Apollo Beach-based organization two years ago.

One man, who was on board an Army helicopter that crashed in Iraq, sat quietly on the second level of the boat.

Another veteran kept smiling. It's been nearly three years since a car accident left him hospitalized with a broken neck, and it was almost time to go home.

As for Jose, being back out on the water reminded him of his Navy days.

They sailed through the Intracoastal Waterway, went under a bridge and sliced through the gulf's choppy water.

"It feels like home," he said.

• • •

When Bryan Custer talks about service members, he gets choked up.

"People don't really understand the sacrifices that military people make unless you've enlisted or someone in your family has enlisted," he said.

The Custers, whose son joined the Army in 2007 at age 23, started Freedom Excursions after visiting him and his unit at Fort Riley in Kansas.

Most of the trips are in Tampa Bay on the Custers' 40-foot motor sailer. Their passengers range from spinal cord patients and amputees to veterans recovering from brain injuries.

A Clearwater Beach company pitches in by taking groups — including wheelchair users — out in the double-decker Dolphin Encounter. Eventually, the Custers hope to buy a wheelchair-accessible houseboat.

Freedom Excursions, which is financed through fundraisers and donations, also takes troops on the water before and after deployments. Family members often come, too.

"Our goal is to reintegrate them back as a family and let daddy just be daddy — not daddy with the uniform," said Marilyn Custer, 49, who works at the organization full time.

The couple partner with the VA medical center, the Tampa Vet Center and MacDill Air Force Base to fill the boat with veterans. They want to spread their efforts as far as possible.

"We can't take away their nightmares," said Bryan Custer, 48, a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy. "All we can do is try to create good memories."

• • •

After a bit of cruising off the beach shore Thursday, the crew finally spotted a dolphin. A crowd gathered around the boat railing.

Several dolphins appeared. Five came up at once and one showed off, repeatedly leaping from the water as it trailed another boat.

Cameras went up. David Schneider shot video.

"Yee haw!" the medically retired soldier yelled.

Schneider, 29, had been in the VA system since September 2007. The next day he was to be discharged and bound for the Carolinas. The boat outing symbolized an important transition for him.

"This time tomorrow," he said, "I'll be home."

Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

Bay area boat trips give wounded veterans moments of freedom 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 10:01pm]
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