Vets 4 Vets – Giving Hope to Veterans Using a Boat and a Fish
Every Veterans Day, Vietnam Veteran and Vets 4 Vets co-founder Jeff Thompson wants us to remember the more than 20 servicemen in the United States who commit suicide each day.
“We can’t forget those who served in World War II, Vietnam, and Korea,” said Thompson. “Their struggles, whether physical or mental, are just as real as those who returned/return from Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Since 2014 the Community Foundation of Morgan County has supported Vets4Vets as a fund of CFMC. Donations to this fund helps Vets4Vets continue providing outdoor opportunities for disabled vets to enjoy.
Vets 4 Vets provides injured veterans, from all military branches, an opportunity to become or remain active by going fishing in an adaptive, one of a kind bass boat – designed by Thompson.
Working with a couple of boat manufacturers, Thompson created removable, stainless steel rails for the front (bow) and back (stern). These rails allow boaters/fishermen to pull themselves up while sitting and maintain balance so they can move around in the boat.
The rail system was installed in 2010 on Thompson’s Ranger Z521 Comanche Bass Boat. A semi-professional fisherman since 1988, Jeff has traveled across the county, on his own dime, to help disabled veterans get out of the house and become active again.
“When you donate to Vets 4 Vets, 100% goes towards the people we help,” Thompson said. “Those of us involved use retirement income to pay for our travel and other expenses.”
Thompson understands firsthand the struggle many veterans encounter after returning from active duty, especially those who are injured. He faithfully served his country during the Vietnam War as a Harrier Pilot. The years of hard landings and high “G” forces took a toll on Jeff’s body, especially his back.
After retiring from the Marine Corps, Jeff and Carol were informed by the doctor that Jeff had Deteriorating Disc Disease. In 2007, Jeff underwent 32 spinal injections and eight ablations at a VA hospital, none of which stopped the deterioration. Any hope for better health was quickly diminishing as three years later in January 2010, Jeff was looking at life in a wheelchair and a morphine pump.
In November 2010, a radical surgery performed on Jeff’s back resulted in a three month medically induced coma along with with the insertion of Titanium rods (14 inch), 12 Titanium bolts, and two years of learning how to walk again.
“I’m now a champion for the Indiana Spine Group,” said Thompson. Located in Indianapolis, the Indiana Spine Group is a comprehensive medical practice for individuals with spinal disorders and/or abnormalities.
Not every veteran is fortunate enough to have family and/or friends in his/her life to provide much-needed support and encouragement. When asked to name the person who has made the biggest, positive impact in his life, Thompson was quick to recognize his wife, Carol.
“She has been my caregiver and cheerleader,” said Thompson with a smile and twinkle in his eyes.
Jeff and Carol met when they were four years old, both living in the Valley Mills area. They graduated from Decatur Central High School in 1969, when Jeff joined the United States Marine Corps. Separated for 30 years as their lives took different paths, they stayed in contact and were reunited in 1999. On June 3, 2011, they married.
Jeff is also an active member of the Paralyzed Veterans (PVA) of America, Indiana/Kentucky Chapter. Founded in 1946, PVA has been a leading advocate in healthcare, spinal cord research, VA benefits and civil rights for veterans and all people with disabilities. There are 38 PVA chapters in the U.S. Over 350 paralyzed vets are members of the Indiana/Kentucky group.
Adaptive sports are part of PVA’s big outreach initiative – pairing up vets with vets as a way to help those struggling find hope and support. From the National Veterans Wheelchair Games to bowling to golfing to the Bass Tours, disabled veterans can learn to enjoy life again.
Working with the PVA gives Thompson another outlet to connect and serve those he holds close to his heart – brothers and sisters “in arms”.
With his one of a kind bass boat in tow, Jeff takes off several times a year for PVA’s American Bass Tours.
Sanctioned by the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, these events are two-day tournaments held at various sites around the U.S. Each tournament has an event for anglers who like to fish from the boat and one for competitors who prefer to fish from the shore. With cash prizes at stake, the first day is competition for only the disabled anglers and then they team up with their “coaches” on the final day.
Thompson will tell you for many of these tournaments he has been “the bridesmaid, but never the bride.” However, it all changed when he earned PVA’s 2017-2018 Angler of the Year award.
Despite the surgical intervention in 2010, last year doctors at the VA hospital diagnosed Jeff with both femoral and sciatic never radiculopathy that’s resulted in mild to moderate paralysis. To help Jeff maintain his balance while walking with a brace, in addition to assistance needed when he is in the wheelchair, Jeff will receive a new service dog (Charlie) in early December.
With a humble heart, Thompson vows to continue serving his fellow comrades. “It’s how I pay it forward,” he added. “As long as I’m able, I’m giving back as much as I possibly can.”
According to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs comprehensive survey, the national suicide rate among vets increased from 2005 (23.8% per 100,000) to 2015 (29.7% per 100,000) by about 25 percent. “Veterans continue to have a much higher rate of suicide than the U.S. population at large,” the survey reported.
President Donald Trump and White House officials focused on bolstering a mental health program for veterans and military members, expanding outreach and peer support services across different governmental agencies.
While the majority of this ramped up mental health access program won’t occur until this summer, emergency help is available through the Veteran Crisis Line, a free and confidential resource available to anyone, including those not registered with the VA.
The Veteran Crisis Line is available 24 hours – (800) 273-8255, Press 1. You can also send a text to “828355” at any time or day of the week.
Launched in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has responded to more than 3.5 million calls and dispatched emergency services to nearly 100,000 callers. In 2009, an online chat service was added and has engaged in over 413,000 chats. Text messaging started in November 2011 and since that time has responded to nearly 98,000 texts.
Now, you can ‘pay it forward’ to our local veterans who sacrificially gave to protect the freedom we enjoy each day. Donate to the Vets 4 Vets fund at www.cfmconline.org. Together, we can make a difference by supporting the men and women who served and are serving our great country.
CFMC’s mission is to connect donors and their charitable giving with our evolving community needs in order to enhance the quality of life for current and future generations through impact grantmaking. The vision of CFMC is to be the philanthropic leader and a catalyst in order to maximize available resources in our community.