LIVERMORE -- Mariela Meylan, a soldier injured in Kuwait, needed some helping hands to lift her from her wheelchair into a kayak for her first paddling and fishing trip.
Once she was nestled into the open hull of a two-person kayak, the slender vessel took over the work of holding Meylan and her companion, a paddling guide.
The duo dipped their paddles in the green waters of Del Valle Reservoir and stroked away -- leaving behind Meylan's wheelchair and a little anxiety about the new challenge.
"I like this," she said. "This is relaxing."
This was a new kind of therapy for Meylan and about 35 other veterans last week in the first outing of a new Bay Area nonprofit group that uses kayak fishing to rehabilitate wounded warriors.
Organizers of Heroes on the Water, a national group started in Texas, say that kayak fishing provides a calming way to relieve the stress from injuries and the rigors of rehabilitation.
The outings also are a good way for veterans to enjoy an outdoor adventure, make friends, escape isolation and move toward rejoining the mainstream, group members say.
"Water can have great healing powers," said Don Anglin, a Sacramento paramedic and firefighter who is organizing the Northern California chapter of Heroes on the Water. "You can have people with missing limbs or damaged motor skills and put them in a kayak, give them a little help, and they can do very well getting around in the outdoors and doing a little fishing."
Anglin, of El Sobrante, said he thinks exposure to the outdoors can be a liberating experience for veterans with physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam or other wars.
He organized one outing at a private lake near Merced in June before putting together the Bay Area event last week at the large reservoir at Del Valle Regional Park. It took some doing to round up dozens of volunteers and boats, and subsidies or donations from several sponsors.
Anglin said he hopes to organize a series of smaller kayak outings, with about 10 veterans at a time out on the water. The events are free for veterans.
For Meylan, a 30-year-old Livermore resident, kayaking provided variety and a new challenge in a routine that requires rehabilitation work almost every day.
Stationed by the Army in Kuwait in 2004, Meylan was changing a tire when she was run over by a civilian driver out to harm American troops, her family said. She nearly died, was in a coma for nearly a year, and continues rehabilitation for brain damage that affected her memory and motor skills.
When she heard about the kayaking opportunity from a therapist at the Veterans Center in Livermore, she gladly agreed to dump her scheduled horse ride.
Once out on the water, Meylan initially cast her line only a few feet. Within an hour, she was casting more than 40 or 50 feet, pleasing her guides.
Landing on shore after three hours on the water, she showed a sense of humor when asked if she had caught anything. "A fish ate half the (sardine) bait off my line."
During the daylong event, only one mishap was reported -- a veteran fell off his kayak into the reservoir, but he got back in the vessel and continued fishing, Anglin said.
Jerry Shock, a veteran who lives in San Lorenzo, came to the reservoir with his own kayak, which can be propelled by foot pedals.
Shock, who served in the Vietnam War, lost the lower part of his left leg in a motorcycle accident in 2008. He usually goes kayak fishing once a month.
"It's a good workout, and I like fishing," he said. Motioning to the blue sky on a sunny day, "How could you have a bad day doing this?"
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.