Non-Profit Provides Community and Connections for Veterans through Sailing

Written by Mission Next Consulting

One of the keys to a successful transition from the military world into civilian life is finding a community. In Annapolis, the Valhalla Sailing Project is providing that community for veterans. Through the sport of sailing, the organization provides wounded, disabled, and separating veterans a sense of camaraderie that is often missing in civilian life. The Mission Next consultants had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Jay McGinnis, the Executive Director of the Valhalla Sailing Project, to learn more about the organization.

Let’s start by having you introduce yourself and telling our readers a little about the Valhalla Sailing Project.

"My name is Jay McGinnis. I retired from the Army in 2013 having spent the bulk of my military career in the Special Operations community. I started my career as an 18D, a Special Forces Medic. As a Staff Sergeant, I applied to the Army Physician Assistant program and gained my commission after graduating that program in 1995. Like I said, most of my career was spent with Special Operations units at Fort Bragg and that life, that operational tempo, takes a toll on not only individuals, but also on marriages. So, after my 5th or 6th deployment, I came home to a wife who was ready to file for divorce. In an effort to hold that marriage together, I leveraged every favor I had to get assigned to a location that was more conducive to my wife’s career. Unfortunately, her mind was made up and, in the summer of 2010, I found myself in the middle of a divorce at the same time I was being reassigned to Fort Meade, Maryland where I had absolutely no support network. I didn’t know a soul in this area. My family and friends were all back in North Carolina and I found myself going to some pretty dark places, emotionally speaking.

To make an incredibly long story short, I signed up for a basic keelboat sailing course with J World in Newport, Rhode Island. They used a boat called a J-24 for their lessons. They are relatively small boats, easy to manage by yourself or one other person, but the boats are also an extremely popular racing platform. So, within just a few weeks of finishing that course, I found a J24 for sale here in Annapolis and that was the turning point for me. I spent a lot of time on the water, often sailing by myself or with one or two other people. Then I got into racing. Racing is where I started to find a new sense of community and connection – honestly, it changed the trajectory of my life.

The other amazing thing that happened in that racing space was that I met Mike Wood, a former Marine. Mike had a similar story to mine. He got out of the Marine Corps, lost that sense of camaraderie, was circling in a really bad situation…and this is not unique to me or to Mike. This is what a lot of veterans experience when they leave active duty. It really doesn’t matter if you get out at 6 years or 26 years, once you’re out, there’s a shift…a sense of loss. In Mike’s situation, he had been sailing for years, but one day he found himself sailing with a group of other veterans and that was a turning point for him. To sort of summarize the Valhalla story, one day I got a call from Mike, and he said, "Hey, I have this idea."

As I like to say, a Marine and a paratrooper walked into a bar and out came an idea. We figured if sailing made a difference for us, then it could make a difference for other people. And that's how the Valhalla Sailing Project came to be."

What kind of emotions did you go through when you left active duty?

"That’s a very good question and I’ve talked about this in other venues as well. We were very fortunate to have an Annapolis filmmaker, Susie Galler, produce a documentary on the Valhalla Sailing Project called "Sailing to Salvation." In that film, I talk about a disrupted sense of belonging, and you can see it and hear it as a common theme in the others who were a part of that documentary. The film has aired on Maryland Public Television and has really reached a lot of people. It seems to resonate with the veteran community. Everyone who has seen it has said to me, "yes, that was my experience, too." I'm incredibly humbled by its success.

Let me put on my little nerdy doctor-trained hat and elaborate on what I mean by the disrupted sense of belonging. The military – probably more than any other profession out there – completely intertwines your sense of self and your identity with your job. You are a soldier, a sailor, a Marine, etc.… or you are a paratrooper, a ranger, or a corpsman, an infantryman. That's what the whole process of being in the military is about and it starts from the very beginning in basic training. It sounds cliche but your outside civilian shell is stripped off and you are remolded into something else. You are immersed in the culture of the military. That’s important as you join your respective branch in the military because it sets the condition to be able to work from a common understanding of the organization. You deeply understand the customs and courtesies – the "culture" if you will – of the organization. Each step of your subsequent training and professional development shapes you and connects you with that culture. Those experiences add another layer to your identity and in the process, the line between who you are and what you do gets really blurry. When you leave the military, all of that connection, identity, and belonging gets totally rocked.

Again, I talked a little bit about that in the documentary. As much as I wish the emotions didn't come through on film, there’s no doubt about the impact or intensity of emotions I felt about leaving active duty. It’s all right there. Even to this day, when I think back on it, it feels heavy. It’s like you’re just not in the club anymore, you know…I mean you're out. You’re done."

It's interesting because it’s not like you – or any other service member – is surprised that the end of your military career is coming. Why do you think it came as such as shock when you got to your terminal leave?

"You bring up a good point because it’s not just my experience. Years ago, I worked with a fantastic Sergeant First Class who was retiring. He had his next plan all mapped out. He was going to work for the same company as his wife…they were going to be able to work together on an entrepreneurial type project funded by a large national agricultural company. I remember the day that I asked him if he was excited about retiring. I said something like "you’re stepping out there with your wife on this new journey." I remember when he looked at me and said, "Sir, I’m absolutely terrified," I couldn’t grasp it. "What do you mean that you're terrified?" What he said has stuck with me to this day. He told me, "Every day for the past 20 years, I have looked in the mirror with me wearing my uniform and I know exactly who I am. I know who I work for, and I know where I fit in because it's all on display on my uniform. Tomorrow, I’m going to sign a few papers and none of this will matter anymore. I don’t know where I belong. I’m not sure who I am."

That really hit home for me, and I reflected on that a lot as I got closer to my own retirement. I thought I was ready. I'm a PA so finding a job wasn’t going to be a problem. Those skills are in high demand, so I wasn't facing any employment or income challenges. What I was facing, however, was that absolute loss of identity, a loss of that sense of belonging. I tried to surround myself with civilian friends, but they just don’t get it. It’s not their fault, but it just isn’t a life they’ve lived. I speak a language that they don't grasp. For example, I can talk to another paratrooper about sitting on an aircraft flying nap of the earth for an hour and a half, and they understand, even if it was another aircraft on a different day or at another duty location. It’s a common experience that we share. It's hard to explain to a civilian the depth of those experiences, what they mean, and how they've shaped and changed you.

If I’m being honest, you feel like you just don't fit in. That’s why veterans have a huge track record of job hopping within the first two to four years after leaving active duty. We are trying to find something that's almost undefinable. We're trying to replicate that sense of community, that sense of camaraderie. We are trying to find that intense sense of belonging. It’s just very, very difficult to find."

What experiences did you have in your transition to the civilian community that made you feel like you didn’t belong in this new world?

"In one of my first jobs, I had a boss who knew absolutely nothing about my background. A task was put in front of me to run a minor training scenario for some Physician Assistant students. My boss could not understand why I wasn’t stressing over this particular training event and the discussion eventually got heated. Finally, out of frustration, I shared my background and described how I led teams on combat missions, and how several times a year, I was in charge of night-time training exercises involving multiple aircraft and support vehicles and a bunch of 18 – 20-something soldiers running around with guns and grenades. I talked about the complexity and the safety concerns, and I tried to explain that with that as my frame of reference, I simply wasn’t going to get too stressed out about a handful of PA students learning how to use a stethoscope. To this day, I don’t think she gets it. What I learned from that experience is that we do have to be careful about appearing too cavalier or too confident because our confidence is often interpreted negatively. In the military, that confidence is seen as a positive characteristic, but I think it is misinterpreted as hubris or lack of awareness by many leaders in the civilian sector.

There was one other incident with that same boss at the same organization. We had an academic integrity issue with a student, and we spent the bulk of two separate staff meetings talking about this one issue. Three weeks later, there was another staff meeting to discuss the same issue. So, I commented that it seemed like we’ve been talking about this issue for a while and I outlined three courses of action as I saw them, based upon the prior discussions. I then suggested to the group that we select a course of action and put the steps in place to bring this to a conclusion. You would’ve thought that I had suggested a public beheading. After the meeting, I was called into my boss’s office and told that I was rushing to judgement and that these issues needed to be carefully discussed. From my perspective, we’d been discussing the situation for three weeks. No new information was being introduced, and it was time to make a decision. I think this is another example of how the veteran community approaches decision making differently from our civilian counterparts. We tend to compartmentalize or condense the facts and then evaluate those facts to develop a course of action. We are comfortable making decisions and executing plans, even difficult ones, with relative speed and efficiency. This can come across as dispassionate but it’s really about how we’ve been trained to make decisions. We take decisive action.

All these issues, these examples, come down to cultural friction. Veterans just might have to re-frame these friction points as opportunities. We may need to slow down and introduce concepts or processes from our military training as ideas or options to consider, rather than as recommended solutions. It's all in the pitch, you know? How do you pitch it?

When you first started sailing with veterans, did you have this vision that the Valhalla Sailing Project would build this sense of community and belonging for former service members?

"We had no idea where Valhalla was going to land. We just started with some thoughts and some aspirations. In the early days, it was just a labor of love. And so much of that fell squarely on the lap of Mike [Wood]. Mike kept this thing up and running when a lot of us didn't see the light. Valhalla would not be here if it were not for Mike and his vision.

Right from the beginning, we saw how sailing provided this connection among people. We've heard the same story from the people that have come through the Valhalla program. It provides another community, another little touchstone of common experiences, that helps you feel a little more connected and maybe not quite so dependent upon that military history. Your new sense of self, your new sense of identity begins to come out. There’s no way to completely uncouple yourself from your military experiences, but redirecting some of that into the sailing world as part of a crew - especially on a racing boat – provides opportunities. I know for some of us, that military experience becomes an anchor. It's all we know. It's our complete identity. We have a hard time moving on from it. By finding these other ways to bond and connect, to feel that sense of belonging, to know that your contributions are valued – it helps you find yourself outside of your military self. Your former military life becomes less of an anchor and just more of a touchstone."

What commonalities do you see with sailing and life in the military?

"Sailing brings something special that I’m not sure I can describe very well but I'll try to draw some analogies. Sailing has a language of its own – sheets versus halyards, port versus starboard, windward versus leeward, main, jib, genoa, spinnaker, backstay, forestay…the list goes on and on. These words mean nothing to people who don't sail, but for people who do sail, it’s important that we all understand them so we can communicate efficiently and clearly, especially in the heat of a race or heavy weather sailing. This is the same way, and the same reason, we learn and use military language.

It's not just the new vocabulary though. The first day you step on a boat, you might feel like you did when you were a Private. Eventually, and relatively quickly, you work yourself up to a Corporal’s level of knowledge – just enough to keep you from getting yourself too terribly hurt. After that, you find yourself working your way into other positions on the boat and you become more seasoned, more versatile. I've been sailing for 13 years. That might sound like a long time, but in Annapolis, there are high school students that have been sailing longer. I'm still quite the newbie, but there's pretty much no position on a boat that I can't do right now and do an okay job. Of course, I’m better in some than others, but I can get the job done pretty much anywhere on the boat. Again, drawing that analogy between sailing and the military – you come in with little to no experience, you get a little bit of training, then very quickly you are asked to do things under demanding and trying conditions. You learn from those with more experience, and you learn from your peers. Over time, you become proficient and then you're immediately given more responsibility or moved into the next level, and you find that you are now the one teaching the new team member.

The other similarity to the military is the camaraderie. Picture a team on a boat – it could be a big group or just a few people. You either have a good race or you have a bad race. Or you have no breeze, and you sit out there and you're hot, but you're suffering together. The crew is bonding and is coming together over the good races, the bad races, and the craziness that can sometimes happen. Everything you do, you're doing it together as a crew. Each situation is a memory that you share as a crew. I ran into a guy a couple of years ago and we couldn’t quite remember how we knew each other. After a while, we discovered that we raced together in a particularly difficult 3-day regatta on the same boat. I mean the conditions were just challenging…heavy breeze, choppy sea state…we broke halyards, I went overboard…it was just a rough three days of racing. But, we had that memory that we could share with each other, that bond. It's just like being the military, you think back to a field exercise or an operation – and you're connected and bonded by that experience."

What do you notice when you first get former service members out on a sailboat with the Valhalla project?

"The one thing that I see in every clinic we run – and it’s probably the most rewarding thing to witness – is what I call "lightbulb moments." On the first day of our clinic, almost everyone is struggling in some area. It’s usually getting the boat positioned correctly relative to the wind. Then, often on the second day, the "lightbulb" goes on for one or two of them. There’s just that moment when one veteran starts to get it and immediately begins to coach his or her buddy who is still struggling. That’s when I get out of the way as an instructor, and I just let the magic happen. I think this is another unique aspect of the military culture. From day one in the service, the idea of supporting your "battle buddy" or your "shipmate" is instilled in you. When you see someone struggling, you step in and help. I see this play out every single time we run a clinic. It’s just amazing to watch."

How many people have learned to sail through the Valhalla project?

"I think our last count had us at just over 500 in the 6 ½ years that we’ve been around. We started off a little bit slow with our clinics putting around 10 or 12 veterans through each time, but now we do as many as 30 in one weekend clinic."

How does somebody get involved with the Valhalla Sailing Project?

"It's simple. Go to our website, Our clinic dates are there. The clinics are sort of our showcase because we're bringing large amounts of people in. However, if you want to get out on the water for a day – especially if you live in the Greater Baltimore, Washington, DC area – that’s easy for us to do. We'll find a way to get you on the water. It may not be in an official clinic, but we will make it work. All of our contact information is on the website. We would love to start doing our clinics more frequently than what we are doing now but that's a work in progress."

How does someone donate to the Valhalla Sailing Project so you can provide these incredible experiences to more veterans?

"There’s a link on our website for donations. Again, it’s On the top right corner, there’s a "Donate" link that will take you to our Pay Pal account. You can also donate directly through Venmo. Just search for the Valhalla Sailing Project or type in @valhallasailing on Venmo. This will put your donation directly into our account. We are a 501(c)(3) veteran service organization so all donations are tax deductible. If you need a receipt for your contribution, send us a quick email and we’ll be happy to give you the right documentation for your tax filing.

It's important to know that we are grassroots 501(c)(3) – nobody in the organization is collecting a paycheck. There's not a single person getting paid at Valhalla. Everything we have goes right back into making the organization run. It’s not just the costs of the clinics, it’s the boat maintenance – and lots of things break on a boat – plus the slip fees or office costs. Remember, BOAT stands for "Break Out Another Thousand" so we really appreciate each and every donation regardless of the amount.

Mission Next talks about how service members struggle to find this sense of community in the civilian workforce, but the Valhalla Project is out there meeting that need. Tell us about some of the success stories that the program has delivered for transitioning service members.

"There’s one that instantly comes to mind. Bo Darlington was a young infantryman with the 82nd airborne division. He’s one of the other veterans featured in the documentary I mentioned earlier. Anyway, I think it was his first deployment and might even have been his first mission when he took an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade, to his arm. They were able to save his arm, but he had significant loss of strength and mobility and wound up being medically retired. He came to our program and absolutely threw himself into sailing. He has crewed for me on my boat. He has crewed on our J-35 and now he is running our J-80 program. He’s living aboard a boat that he has raced during Charleston Race week and has done two Chicago-Mackinac races. This is a very challenging multi-day long distance race on Lake Michigan.

There’s more to it than his success as a sailor though. Like I said, we are an all-volunteer organization. Without Bo, I don't know where we would be. He devotes so much of his time and effort into helping us keep this thing up and running. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but from my observation, I think he enjoys having that sense of purpose. He knows that he has something to do with his day that connects him to like-minded people within an organization that has a mission that he finds purposeful and involves an activity that he enjoys. I think it has been good for him and I know he has been good for Valhalla. Having him in this organization is a constant reminder for me of why we do what we do.

Plus, we have other participants who have come through our program who keep coming back. They email every Wednesday or every Friday asking, "Hey, are we racing?" There’s that connection they’re seeking. Sometimes – and Bo is a huge part of this, too – they just go out together, not racing, just sailing. They might not even really talk about anything…just spending some time on the water together. You can watch the weight just lift off people's shoulders. It’s so amazing when you get out there. You're out in the middle of the Bay, the breeze hits, the boat powers up, and everything is just dialed in. Nothing else seems to matter that much for that hour or two or three or four that you're out there."

What else do you want to tell our readers about how the Valhalla Sailing Project helps veterans transition?

Let me put that doctorate to work, and start wearing that "nerd" hat again for just a moment. People have a multilayered, intertwined set of needs that act as the foundational structure of our individual resilience. Every one of us exists as a spiritual, physical, intellectual, communal, and emotional being. This is easy to remember using the acronym SPICE. When we face adversity, we find strength and support in one or more of those domains.

The Valhalla Sailing Project provides an outlet where veterans can tap into each of these domains. Sailing on the Chesapeake Bay can be a very spiritual experience. The Bay is huge and if you spend enough time out there, you’ll come face-to-face with a reminder that something larger than "self" surrounds you. You’ll see osprey, bald eagles, dolphins, and other creatures that live in and around the Bay. The very nature of sailing requires some intellectual engagement. There’s a science behind sailing. We shape the sails to create lift and we are constantly analyzing the most efficient angles on the racecourse. In the midst of all of that, the wind and current are constant factors that must be considered. And of course, what we do is communal. You’re part of a crew – a racing crew. You’re an integral part of that team. From an emotional standpoint, you have to let some things go. You have to manage your frustrations. You can get as mad as you want to at the breeze, but Mother Nature doesn’t care. You get as mad as you want to at the boat, the current, the chop… but all that anger is just wasted energy. You have to stay focused on sailing. You have to adapt; you have to deal with it.

This concept goes beyond the veteran community. I think If HR departments can embrace this idea of resilience as a multi-layered network of needs and facilitate pathways for people to be able to tap into them, they'll be way ahead of the game in terms of employee retention, and overall employee well-being."

The consultants at Mission Next Consulting want to thank Dr. Jay McGinnis and the Valhalla Sailing Project. Your time and insights are extremely valuable, and we appreciate the opportunity to share your thoughts with our readers. If readers have any questions on the material that is presented here, please reach out to Mission Next Consulting from our Contact Us page.

Published: August 15, 2022

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