Andrew Grego recalls a meeting with an injured soldier at Walter Reed Military Medical Center that steeled his resolve to press on with Blue Water Warriors, a Fort Lauderdale non-profit that gets wounded veterans out on the water.
A specialist in explosive ordnance disposal, the G.I. had lost one arm at the shoulder, another at the elbow and a leg below the knee in a blast from an improvised explosive device he stepped on in Afghanistan.
While Grego was in the room on a 2012 visit to the Washington, D.C., hospital, the young man’s wife — also an IED disposal specialist — dropped in to exchange goodbyes with him before her own deployment to Afghanistan. After the emotional parting, the wounded husband and father asked, “When she gets back, can you take her and my [7-year-old] daughter and me out on the water?” Grego says.
That memory has been a powerful motivator to keep Blue Water Warriors on track.
“This isn’t just a feel-good thing,” Grego says. “You’ve got to work at it.”
Grego and his wife, Karen, have been working very hard. The couple work full time as crew on a megayacht that stays around Fort Lauderdale and spend what free time they have overseeing Blue Water Warriors, a 501(c)3 charity staffed entirely by volunteers.
“For these [veterans] to go and do what they do to defend this country and its way of life, they deserve to be really looked after,” Grego says. He and Karen, both 46 and captain and mate, respectively, on the 112-foot Westport Lady Z, launched Warrior, a 37-foot aluminum offset-helm center console, last October.
Using in-kind donations, a lot of their own money and paid and volunteer workers, the Gregos built Warrior under a tent at the Lauderdale Marine Center, putting the finishing touches on it just 48 hours before its debut at a donated dock at the 2014 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, where it drew national coverage on Fox News.
“Without the South Florida marine industry, there’s no way this could be what it is today,” Grego says.
Its website (bluewaterwarriors.org) lists nearly four dozen partners who have helped in Warrior’s construction and in its mission, which is to give injured veterans time on the water “to reconnect with their peers and families in settings of natural beauty and serenity” and “achieve lasting healing and recovery.”
Thirty-six licensed captains have volunteered to work as skippers or mates on Warrior on fishing, diving, snorkeling and family day trips, says Karen Grego. “Getting the captains is the easy part,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to go fishing?”
Raising the money to maintain the boat (they dock it behind their house, so there are no slip fees) and pay for the fuel, bait and food for outings is the challenge. They try to get a sponsor for each trip and are looking for corporate sponsors for long-term funding.
Air Force Master Sgt. Andrew Casey, 37, fished on Warrior in the Feb. 27 Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament. “It was a blast,” says Casey, of San Antonio, Texas. The Warrior team caught a kingfish, three dorado, a barracuda and a small shark and came within four ounces of winning the tournament’s kingfish category.
“I know Andrew and Karen gave out of their own pocket to build this boat,” says Casey, a surgical technician who has undergone two surgeries after damaging vertebrae in his back while carrying the body of a deceased soldier from a helicopter at a Special Forces forward operating base in Afghanistan. “They are very passionate about this.”
The Gregos took Casey home after the tournament for a barbecue. “It was a very personalized experience, not a cookie-cutter corporate kind of thing,” he says. “I felt like I was part of the team.”
Scheduled to retire in two years, Casey says he likely will live with some back pain for the rest of his life, but “there are a lot more deserving wounded warriors than me. I’m grateful for the people who gave much more than I did.”
The outing was his first after his second surgery, and Casey — an angler and hunter — says the trip underscored the benefits of getting wounded veterans out on the water.
“Any day on the water is a good day on the water,” he says. “I had a great time.”
He was so impressed with the benefits that he says it has occurred to him — though it was as yet just a thought and he hadn’t talked to the Gregos about it — that he might want to start a “Shallow Water Warriors” charity in Texas and take wounded veterans out on his flats boat to fish for speckled trout and redfish in Baffin Bay, an inlet off Texas’ Laguna Madre. It could be a pro bono service of the fishing guide business he wants to start after he retires.
Grego, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been thinking of designing and building a good-looking aluminum center console like many of those in his native New Zealand. He had sketched out the lines of the boat, and while captaining a yacht for a woman who had found cruising the Caribbean a welcome respite from her struggle with cancer, she helped redirect his plans to designing and building a boat to take injured vets out on the water.
Grego says a cousin of hers had been badly wounded in war, so she had a deep concern for vets returning home with incapacitating injuries. She arranged Grego’s trip to Walter Reed so he could talk with recovering veterans, find out what they needed and what they wanted, and design the program and boat for them.
“Until you’re face to face with it, you don’t understand,” Grego says. “You see it on TV and you change the channel to get it out of your head. Until you know somebody or have a family member [who has been severely injured in war], it just doesn’t sink in.”
Warrior is based on Grego’s original drawings but with refinements and engineering by Justin Shell’s ESS Yacht Design of Fort Lauderdale and new design features to accommodate wheelchairs and amputees. Powered by triple 250-hp Evinrude E-TEC outboards, Warrior has an oversize console offset to port, so there’s room for a wheelchair to run along the other side between the cockpit and the big open bow.
The head compartment in the console is roomy enough for a wheelchair and an aide, and it has an electrically driven lift to lower a wheelchair to the head. The boat also has a wide swing-open transom and side doors for wheelchairs and amputees; deck-level boarding ramps adaptable to different dock configurations; specially adapted fighting chairs, harnesses and other equipment for sportfishing; non-skid surfaces; high-grip fabrics for seat cushions; locks for securing wheelchairs; and a gryo stabilizer to minimize roll.
The Gregos’ goal is one day to have several boats — maybe one in Annapolis, Md., to serve Walter Reed and another in Texas to serve the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in San Antonio. They also want to extend Blue Water Warriors’ reach to help others who are disadvantaged — “any organization that has people in need who we can help.”
“We see people who have money and have luxury,” Grego says. “We want to be able to help people who don’t have money, but want to do this and could benefit from it.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.