Everyday 22 veterans, including active-duty service members across all branches, commit suicide. 22 people with parents, families, and people that love them. Every single day.

It’s a staggering number, and while many professions struggle to understand the root causes and how to address it, there are people who need help.

4THE22 is a a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that works to raise awareness of veteran and first responder suicide rates, but more importantly helps to provide solutions through standup paddling, surfing, and exercise. As paddlers, we all know first-hand the therapeutic value of being on the water, feeling the rhythm of a paddle stroke, and the mindfulness of being in the moment. 4THE22 provide group paddles and even equipment needed to get vets and first responders on the water, and on the way to finding balance in their lives.

To learn more about 4THE22 we sat down with founder Josh Flath, who runs the operation with his wife Jessi and an amazing board of directors.

Josh and Jessie Flath with Ruby the wonder SUP dog. Photo Shannon Carr

What gave you the idea to start 4THE22?

My wife and I moved up to Michigan in 2018. We were stationed in Hawaii for the previous 4 years. While I was in the Navy, 6 of my friends committed suicide. We are losing 22 veterans to suicide daily. These statistics are wild… for me, being able to put a name and a face with these numbers really hit hard. That is what got us going down this path. It all started with a crazy idea to paddle up the coastline of Lake Michigan to Torch Lake (270 miles) in a week’s time to raise awareness. In July of 2019 that thought became a reality. We kicked off the M270 Paddle for Our Veterans on July 13th and finished on July 19th, with a total of nearly 71 hours on the water.

We got connected with some amazing people along the way who truly, and whole heartedly believed in the mission. These people were so instrumental in 4THE22 growing and becoming what it is today. We are so thankful for each and every one of them! Because of their support the mission became so much bigger, so much more powerful, and the dream of raising awareness slowly evolved into providing solutions.

Mik Deboef at Team Maxem, Inc. was there from the start. We met him in 2018 at the Great Lakes Surf Festival in Muskegon, MI (my first paddle board race) He was one of the few people that believed we could complete the M270, but he took it much further than that. After hearing my story on how surfing and paddling impacted my life, he suggested getting some boards, so we could take our veterans and first responders out to share that feeling, share that vibe, share the community. Mik connected us with Surftech and NSP, one of the best companies in the standup and surf industry, and the rest is history.

4THE22’s fleet of NSP Cruise paddleboards and Ruby the therapy dog that comes to all of our events.

Stephen & Kira Biastock at Maven Motive came from a Tech background with very minimal exposure to surfing or paddling. We got connected with them shortly after the 2018 Great Lakes Surf Festival and they brought a whole new aspect and skill set to 4THE22. They took over the website and social media, bringing it to places we never could have dreamed of. Through many conversations and a lot of brainstorming they were very instrumental in the direction this organization has gone and continues to go. Through the process they fell in love with the community and being on the water. They recently just got their own boards!

I could go on for pages… but the story is the same. Jessi and I are surrounded by some absolutely amazing people! 4THE22 has drawn people from all walks of life who are passionate, very good at what they do, and they care. For me it has been healing, and it has restored my faith in humanity, there are a lot of good people out there who care about our veteran and first responder communities. It has been really neat seeing how being on the water has affected our veterans, first responders, volunteers, board of directors, and the surf and paddle community. Looking back, it is humbling to be a part of this organization… it all started with a simple idea of a paddle to raise awareness.

Why did you decide on a paddling focus?
While stationed in Hawaii, I fell in love with surfing and standup paddle, and it quickly became my release, my go to… what I did to calm down after a long day working on airplanes and survival equipment. It is so easy to get caught up in everything in life and lose what makes you who you are. Having a release… something you absolutely love is so powerful. I truly believe it is the first step to healing and finding your purpose.

It is safe to say that my time on the water saw me through a lot, and I know it can do the same for others. Being on the water, being present, living in the moment has a way of centering and bring balance to every aspect of life, but that is just the start. The surf and paddle community is one of the few places that I have found a brotherhood that resembles that of the military. Over the past year it has been incredible seeing the impact that the community has had on our veterans and first responders and vice versa. In all honesty it has been difficult to determine who is getting the most out of it, we couldn’t have hand-picked a better community to bring our heroes into. That community, and brotherhood is so vital in helping our veterans successfully transition into civilian life.  We will never be able to thank this community enough for the impact they are making! Without them… nothing we do would be possible.

What activities and services does the organization provide?
Our mission is to bring balance to our veteran’s lives through paddling community and comradery. Getting on the water in itself can be so therapeutic, but when you tie an awesome community in with surfing and or paddling, that is what we offer. Our goal is to form friendships, share the water, share that feeling, share that vibe. With that in mind 4THE22 offers group paddles, equipment for the service members to use, instruction, and we are just starting to do board giveaways to qualifying veterans.

What are some of your favorite moments you’ve had with the program?
Man there are so many… Where do I start? My favorite group paddle was an event we held in partnership with the Battle Creek VA Medical Center. To me that event really embodied why we do what we do. Seeing the Impact, seeing the look on their faces, the pure joy, the exhilaration, seeing their pain, worries, and insecurities dissipate as they are on the water experiencing and taking in the power just living in the moment. It was humbling seeing many of our friends in the paddle scene, paddling with our heroes, giving instruction and forming relationships. That is what this is about! The water is the medium we use to build community and comradery.

Another moment that comes to mind clearly was in the middle of the M270 Paddle for Our Veterans. I paddled the majority of the miles solo, which left a lot of time for self-reflection, and to be honest a lot of time to think “What the HELL am I doing” “You can’t maintain 10+ hour paddle days for 7 days straight” and the list goes on… those thoughts came to a peak on the 4th day at around 11am. I was roughly 2.5 Miles offshore, straight out from Ludington state park.

I was lining myself up for my next stop in Manistee. I had favorable winds, and it was shaping up to be an epic downwind! I had 6ft to 10ft waves pushing me straight into Manistee. Then a heavy fog rolled in, I couldn’t even see the tip of my board! In that situation the first instinct is “I am going to die” The only thing I could do is keep the paddle in the water, feel the waves, and keep going. Eventually my heart rate slowed, and the reality sunk in. I have a compass and two emergency beacons all is good.

Once that realization hit, it was like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders and, at the same time, the blindfold fell off my eyes. I finally took in the beauty of my surroundings. The sun was shining through the fog above me, there was a rainbow encompassing everything I could see in the sky, it was just breathtaking! I still couldn’t see the tip of my board, but in that moment I was one with nature in a way I am not sure I will ever experience again. It truly is incredible how perspective can change how you view life or a specific situation so immensely. That is life, weather you survive depends on how you react. If you panic, or if you calm down, asses your situation, keep moving forward, and hopefully take in the beauty of your surroundings.

These reactions may be slightly more immanent in big surf than in our everyday life but in this way, they relate very closely. Thanks to this experience I was able to put into words, why I feel surfing and paddling is a perfect medium to help our veterans and first responders understand, deal with their emotions, and transition successfully into civilian life.

What’s next for the organization?
It has been a great honor to share the water with our heroes but how awesome would it be if we could provide a board so they can continue their journey? It is with this thought the “Board Giveaway for Our Heroes” program is starting to take shape. Our mission with this program is to build relationships, spend time on the water, help bring balance to life, and giveaway a board that fits the needs, wants, and riding style of a qualifying veteran and or first responder. Our goal is to give away at least one board per year. Many veterans we have worked with have been very interested in getting into paddle racing. With that in mind providing race fees is something we are considering as well.

The first Recipient of the Board Giveaway for Our Heroes program was Aaron Lugo. He was presented his board in July of 2020.

How can people support the group?

  • We are always looking for volunteers’ people who are willing to come paddle with our veterans and first responders, share their knowledge, and build relationships. This is all about community!
  • If you are a race director and would like to offer free or discounted race slots for our Heroes program, we would be honored.
  • If you own a Surf Shop and you would like to sponsor a board giveaway or help us with our gear: Boards, leashes, paddles, rail tape, repair etc… We would greatly appreciate it our gear gets a lot of use and eventually it will need repair and or replacement.
  • Cash Donations for operating expenses (Insurance, permits, repair, replacement, food for events etc..) 100% of proceeds go towards bringing balance to our heroes’ lives. Our donations link is: https://www.4the22.life/product/donations/