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Marie Zanders-Lewis, Retired Chief Warrant Officer 3, center, is greeted by Donna Flory, volunteer, at the Patriot Cruise and Salute at Prince William Marina, Oct. 9. Nearly 30 veterans, caregivers and family were taken out by eight volunteer boat captains.

In the spring of 2007, Ed Mason, who had just returned from Iraq, was tasked by U.S. Army Human Relations to set up a hotline for wounded warriors to ensure they were receiving adequate care, following revelations of substandard conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center.

There was a flood of calls, and Mason was working every day to follow up with them. Around Veterans Day, Mason said his wife, Christine, suggested they take some of the affected veterans out on their boat, which had not been used yet due to his massive workload.

“The Prince William Marina donated a boat captain, and marina owner Carlton Phillips said he would do anything we needed to make it happen. Phillips even told me to take the veterans to lunch at Tim’s Rivershore and he would pick up the tab,” Mason said.

Mason and his wife took eight wounded warriors out on the Potomac River to see the sights, had lunch at Tim’s and returned to the marina that afternoon.

“One of the individuals, who had PTSD, wasn’t talking for the first couple hours of the cruise,” Mason said. “By the end of the day he was relaxed, and talking, and having a good time.” He added that getting people away from the hospital to enjoy the beauty of the Occoquan and Potomac rivers worked out better than he’d planned.

“When we came back, we had people asking us, ‘What was that Walter Reed bus doing here?’ and we told them about it,” Mason said. “So what started with one boat and eight people, by the next year grew to 10 boats, then 20, and then 40 boats in different locations.”

The 2021 version of the annual event was held Saturday, and it has now expanded to include Gold Star Families and law enforcement, as organizers wanted to make it a moment to bond boaters with those who have served their communities. Christine Mason said guests are encouraged to bring parents, children, caregivers or battle buddies.

Volunteer captains for the day included Stephen Levenson and his wife, Una Murphy.

“Today was amazing,” Murphy said. “We had a really great time being able to honor patriots and do something with them they might not normally have a chance to do.”

The guest on their boat was Chief Warrant Officer 4 Vick Garcon, who after 29 years in the Army Reserves, is recovering from a stroke he suffered last year.

“Today was the most fun I’ve had in my life,” Garcon said. “It’s ironic because I had to get sick to come here and enjoy such a good day. The folks were very courteous and got me on their personal boat and we went all the way up to National Harbor and took a lot of pictures. It was just beautiful. I can’t thank them enough for this event. All of us are humbled and are grateful for this free event. It took us out of the barracks and made us all feel good.”

Doug Burum, who is taking over as Patriot Cruise and Salute director of operations next year, said it’s important to let veterans and law enforcement officers have a day where they don’t have to think about what’s happened to them.

“Let them relax for a day on the water, and then we honor them with a special coin,” Burum said. “I’m a veteran myself, but never had to put myself in harm’s way. Sometimes we forget about the people who take care of us.”

Paul Lara covers the military beat. Reach him at plara@insidenova.com

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