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Ron Mizutani

Proudly Paddling For Our Heroes

Wounded Warriors and their surviving family members take part in a Canoe Regatta designed to honor the fallen and support those still fighting combat injuries

There’s not a day that goes by that Cathy Ignacio doesn’t think about the love of her life. Staff Sgt. Jason Ignacio was a true gentleman, a wonderful father and a loving husband.

The native of Guam, who moved to Hawaii after graduating from high school, proudly served in the U.S. Army for 12 years. He deployed four times to the Middle East, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“He loved the military,” says Cathy Ignacio with great pride. “He was a laid-back island boy, but his passion was the Army and serving our country.”

Jason Ignacio had it all: a loving wife, two beautiful children in Jared (8) and Ariel (5) and a great job in Washington, D.C.

“He served with the White House Communications Agency as a Network Systems Tech,” says Ignacio. “One of his biggest goals was to do something special with his career, and when he got the job with the White House, that was the icing on the cake.

I was so proud of him.”

But on Aug. 21, 2012, the family’s world was turned upside down when Ignacio received devastating news. Her life partner was gone.

“Jason died of natural causes,” she says sadly. “He was traveling with the president and vice president teams in New York City when he passed away. He took a nap and never woke up.”

Doctors told Ignacio, her husband died of heart failure.

Jason was only 36.

“We never expected our lives to take such a sudden turn,” she says.

Cathy works for the U.S. Army as a support coordinator for the Survivor Outreach Services Program, supporting the families of our fallen heroes. But for the past several weeks, she’s been more than a service provider — she’s literally been in the same canoe as they are.

Ignacio and 21 other spouses and family members of fallen heroes are preparing to compete in this year’s Duke’s OceanFest Na Koa Wounded Warrior Canoe Regatta in the waters off the Hale Koa Hotel. The canoe regatta was created to recognize service members who have served our country and are now recovering in Hawaii and to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

“Being in that canoe with other spouses, we don’t even have to say anything,” Ignacio says with tears in her eyes. “Just looking at each other, we know why we’re in the canoe. The silence is powerful and healing.”

On Saturday, Aug. 16, Hawaii’s Wounded Warriors will battle it out for bragging rights in the sixth annual regatta. More than 40 teams will participate, including three VIP teams, nine youth teams and 27 Wounded Warrior teams. And for the first time, Gold Star Families, families of military members who died in service, also will compete.

“Knowing that we have other Gold Star Families feeling the same emotions helps us honor our fallen heroes and the healing process,” she says. “My husband and I loved ocean activities and we really enjoyed paddling recreationally. For me, taking part in this event is not only healing for me, it’s a way of honoring him.”

Gold Star Family dates back to World War II. It started with Gold Star Mothers and later expanded to recognize the sacrifice of Gold Star Families. Ignacio and 21 other crewmembers have been training three-days a week with Honolulu Pearl Canoe Club.

“They’re doing it in memory of their loved ones, and you see the spirit of their spouses with them,” says Penny Kalua, a coach with the Pearl Harbor-based club. “If you have five of them in that canoe, it’s almost like you have a crew of 10.”

Kalua says helping the Gold Star Families has been a blessing.

“Many of our club members are service members,” says Kalua, who served one tour in Iraq with U.S. Army Reserves. “After one of the first practices, the survivors introduced themselves and whom they represented, and we were brought to tears. Paddling can be healing, especially at Pearl Harbor, where we have service members still trapped in the U.S.S. Arizona. Having the survivors there, even if they’re not related, they’re still all connected. Our club members are giving their time but we’re getting so much more back. We’re all tied together in some way.”

This year’s regatta will also feature Purple Heart recipients, Vietnam and Korean War veterans, soldiers assigned in the Warrior Transition Units at Schofield and Kaneohe, and others serving in the 25th Infantry Division, National Guard and Reserve units.

“It is a perfect way to embrace the Hawaiian culture by encouraging our wounded and their spouses to participate in such a culturally important activity as outrigger canoe racing,” says Matthew McCarville, vice president for Wounded Warrior and Family Programs and co-chair of this year’s event.

While the regatta was created to promote public awareness for Wounded Warriors and to support their families, it’s become a chance to provide employment opportunities. On Aug. 15, a job fair, featuring more than 40 employers, will be held at Hale Koa Hotel for military service members, veterans, Wounded Warriors, and their families.

“We are deeply honored to be paying tribute to those who have served in our military and who are recovering in our state from their injuries,” says Circuit Court Judge Ed Kubo, co-chair of the event. “They and their families have truly sacrificed for our freedoms, and we should always be willing to stand by them and support them to the best of our abilities. Only in the Aloha State can Wounded Warriors and their families really feel our love, appreciation and our sincere embrace.”

It’s been said, “The greatest casualty is being forgotten.” This annual regatta is a reminder for all of us not to let that happen.

“We’re honoring our loved ones, and while we hope to win, in the end, it really isn’t about the medal or winning,” says Ignacio. “It’s about bringing awareness to the community; it’s about healing.”

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