JEFFERSON, WI — Jefferson native Nic Doucette soon will help his friends and fellow veterans by traveling 2,552 miles ... by kayak.
But first, he needs your help.
Doucette, a 2005 graduate of Jefferson High School, has set a goal to raise $25,000 by kayaking the entire length of the Mississippi River this summer. He will start at Lake Itasca in Minnesota on May 31, and spend approximately two-and-a-half months paddling south until he reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
All of the monies raised will be given to the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans recover from catastrophic injuries in a number of ways. For example, the organization helps defray expenses incurred during hospitalization, and assists with rehabilitation and therapy, as well as the purchase of specialized equipment and adaptive vehicles.
Founded in 2004, the Semper Fi Fund has issued more than 65,100 grants to veterans, totaling $82 million-plus in assistance to over 10,580 veterans and their families.
Thus far, Doucette has raised about $8,300 for the organization, slightly more than one-third of his goal.
“I chose the Semper Fi Fund because they have an incredibly low overhead, thus more funds go directly to help the veterans,” he said.
Doucette, currently a business management student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was an active duty Marine from January 2008 to November 2011.
While serving in Afghanistan in 2010, his company conducted “route clearance,” meaning they had to clear Improvised Explosive Devices — commonly called IEDs — from roads used by the coalition forces.
Two fellow Marines, Sgt. Gabriel Martinez and Cpl. Justin Gaertner, both lost their legs when IEDs detonated while on a mission. They had been searching for additional IEDs after their lead vehicle struck one.
“They were foot dismounts, looking for secondary IEDs,” Doucette recalled. “They were using metal detectors, but the first blast scattered metal all over the place from the first truck. Martinez, who was on the left, stepped on an IED. Gaertner, who was on the right, immediately started to clear an area so a medical helicopter could land, and while he was clearing the area, he stepped on an IED too.
“So, two people were down from the explosion, and the people behind them were all concussed from the blasts, too,” Doucette continued. “They did get Medevaced out, but Justin lost both of his legs above the knees, and Martinez lost one above and one below the knee.”
Doucette called that day the lowest point of his deployment.
“These guys were our best sweepers,” he said. “That put a damper on those who had to fill in, because they were the best. I was a driver, and I never hit an IED, but we had plenty of people who did.”
Doucette said that when he returned to civilian life, he did a lot of canoe fishing with his friends.
“It just randomly came up one day about how awesome it would be to take huge trip in a canoe,” he said. “At first, all of them were really into it, but then it became clear that no one could really take two-and-half months off from work or their families.”
But since Doucette was enrolled at UW-Whitewater, his summer was free.
“So, I started researching it, and became committed to the idea,” Doucette explained. “I did quite a bit of research, reading about other people’s experiences. I discovered a website of someone who canoed by himself down the river, and he had a ton of useful information on there. I asked him if he were to do it again, what would he do differently, and he said he would have used a kayak and not a canoe.”
Why? Kayaks are lighter, and thus travel faster in water. So Doucette switched to a kayak and started planning the trip a year ago this month.
“I had to talk to my wife, Heather, about it,” he said. “I answered a bunch of her questions, then got the go-ahead to buy the kayak.”
The vessel he will be using actually is a kayak/canoe hybrid. It is built to function like a kayak, but it has open space like a canoe. It can be covered with spray skirts, though.
“With this having an exposed top, I can add more gear,” he noted.
Doucette said one of the best resources he has found in preparing for the trip was Facebook.
“There is a group called Mississippi Paddlers,” he said. “I saw everything other people posted; they have either made this trip in the past, or are people who live on the river and help out with people who are doing it. I have met a lot of people through social media who have just reached out for places to stay. They even offered to feed me and let me take a shower.
“In my research, I discovered that there are annually between 12 and 24 people who try to canoe or kayak the Mississippi,” Doucette said.
While he has no “planned stops” on the trip, the veteran does have daily goals.
“The Minnesota Department of Resources has campsites along the river, most of which are only accessible by the river,” he said. “Minnesota will be the easiest place. But once I’m south of there, I’ll just have to look at maps each day. Each night will plan the next day.”
Doucette said he wanted to do this trip for a cause. He first thought of the Wounded Warrior Project, but Martinez and Gaertner recommended the Semper Fi Fund.
“I started to look into what they do, and they give grants to injured service members, whether they’re Marines, Navy or Air Force,” Doucette said. “They work with people PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, therapy or rehab, grants for adaptive housing and vehicles. Gabe has a service dog, and Semper Fi covers the medical bills for the dog.”
He added that once he posted on his Facebook page that he was working with the Semper Fi Fund, dozens of veterans wrote and shared how the fund helped the individually.
“They have been awesome to work with,” Doucette said.
Accompanying Doucette on the journey will be Gabe Vasquez, who will be leaving active duty in the Marine Corps two weeks before the start of the trip.
“His family will pick us up in the city nearest to where we finish,” Doucette said.
The Vasquezes then will drive the paddlers to their home in Austin, Texas, where Doucette’s father will meet up to drive him back to Wisconsin.
Once the trip is over in August, Doucette plans to resume classes at UW-Whitewater.
“I only have 100 days between the start of the trip and the start of the fall semester,” he said.
Doucette plans to send pictures and messages to his wife, who will then post them to his Facebook page so supporters can follow him along on the journey. That page is Facebook.com/mississippi2014.
Donations are being accepted, and more information can be found, at Doucette’s website at MississippiRiver2014.weebly.com.
Persons wishing to send a check to support Doucette’s mission may do so to: Nic Dou cette, 788 Browning Ave., Jefferson, WI, 53549. Please make the checks payable to “The Semper Fi Fund” and remember to write “Nic Doucette Kayak Trip” on the memo line.
A special fund raising night for Doucette’s mission will be held on Saturday, May 24, at the Showtime Sports Bar, at 11400 W. Silver Spring Road, Milwaukee. Doors open at 6 p.m.