A new program in the Keys takes returning veterans on the water as a way to help ease their way back into civilian life.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Dombroski-Ferguson is the latest young veteran to participate in the Elks Lodge's Vets on the Water program. Florida Bay Outfitters, at mile marker 104, took the recently retired 23-year-old Navy sailor on a guided kayak tour off Key Largo Wednesday.
"It's a really great way to help veterans feel appreciated," Ferguson said. "It's a great adjustment when you take someone out of a stressful situation, like the military, and programs like this help."
Ferguson was born in Key West, raised in Tavernier and moved to Vero Beach when he was in high school.
He joined the Navy after graduation and stayed in for five years. He was a master at arms, meaning he was in security. For the past two years, he was one of four chief guards in charge of harbor security at Naval Station Rota in Spain. This was a huge task. Not only are there U.S. and other NATO ships at the base, but the majority of Spain's armada is docked in the harbor.
Overall, Ferguson said serving in the Navy had a positive impact on his life and has prepared him well for his future.
"It was a really great way to learn to focus and gain self-motivation," he said. "It helped me gain a sense of responsibility. You learn to adjust quickly, and just being able to serve my country was an honor. It is the best way to learn."
And his days of learning are just beginning. While in the Navy, Ferguson completed three quarters of his bachelor's degree in economics. He is moving to New York City, where he plans to finish his degree at Fordham University.
While in New York, he will be consulting with a friend of his who is working on a high-end line of fashion.
After Fordham, Ferguson said he plans to work on completing his master’s degree in business administration. He plans to apply to either Cambridge or Oxford universities in the United Kingdom.
He is also thinking about going to officers candidate school and joining the Naval Reserves.
Janie Ferguson, Stephen's grandmother, is an Elks member and active in the Vets on the Water program, which started about six months ago after the Tavernier Lodge 1872 received a $15,000 grant from the Elks National Foundation. Stephen is the fourth veteran to take part in the program.
"And there are four more lined up to go deep sea fishing," she said.
Other businesses offering their services so far include the Tavernier Dive Center, Theater of the Sea, Capt. Lonnie Shaw and Bud 'N' Mary's Marina, Skip Bradeen's Blue Chip Too Charters, Robbie's Marina and the Captain Michael party charter boat and Caribbean Water Sports.
Michael Heinritz, 31, was Ferguson's guide this week and said it was an honor to go paddling with the Navy vet.
"Obviously it's a great experience," Heinritz said. "Any way we can help veterans when they get back is a good thing, and we’re happy to help out."