U.S. Navy veteran Jim Alunni Finley always wanted to sail, even though he had never sailed before when he joined the Navy as a corpsman. Fifteen years after his deployment to Iraq, his sailing dream is coming true. But this time, he plans to help other veterans heal as part of a sailing program, the Intrepid Sailing Corps.
Mr. Finley is the fire marshal for the Chagrin Valley Fire Department. He also served his country as a Navy corpsman from 2003 to 2006. He was injured in combat, recovered and learned how to reintegrate into society and now is striving to help other veterans do the same through their common love of sailing. While attending Solon High School, Mr. Finley recalled speeches by Vietnam War veterans.
“One guy was in your face and he was angry. He said that we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Mr. Finley, 49, of Chagrin Falls said. “After going into a war zone and getting injured, now I understand what he was talking about. The transition back to being a civilian is difficult.”
Mr. Finley was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a medic assigned to the Marine Corps. He said that he was not affected mentally as much as some of his fellow service members because he was already a firefighter. Nonetheless, Mr. Finley said that it was difficult to readjust when he came home.
His seven-month deployment was cut short when he was injured by a suicide bomber. Mr. Finley said that he had multiple surgeries in Iraq and was stabilized in Germany. He had four chest tubes and a tracheostomy and returned to what is now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. His unit lost 48 service members and more than 200 were wounded in action, Mr. Finley said.
VIPs visited the recovering veterans, including senators, generals, members of Congress and representatives from the Wounded Warrior Project, he said. Upon returning to Cleveland, Mr. Finley received a purple heart metal.
Several years later, Mr. Finley participated in Wounded Warrior Project’s cycling events, including one that took him on a trip to England. He started thinking about sailing again, he said, and a Google search showed that there was an organization called Warrior Sailing. He attended a week-long sailing camp in Annapolis, Maryland, which allowed him to bond with other veterans while learning how to sail. That program inspired Mr. Finley to start his own in Cleveland.
“You’re coming from a common bond of wartime scenario,” Mr. Finley said of the strong relationships that form between veterans.
He sailed with Warrior Sailing for three summers and earned his keelboat certification. Mr. Finley also said that he competed in Sperry Charleston Race Week in South Carolina last year. Once he had the idea to start a sailing program for veterans, he needed a boat. Stepping in to help was fellow Chagrin Valley Fire Department firefighter Drew Ferguson, president of Phastar, a local nonprofit that offers learning experiences in aerospace and maritime operations to high school and technical education students. He found the perfect boat for Mr. Finley.
The Intrepid is a 44-foot Luders yawl custom designed for the U.S. Naval Academy. The director of a local Sea Scouts program donated the vessel. It was used at the Naval Academy from 1967 until 1983.
“This was at the Naval Academy for so long, it’s a naval boat and it’s 44-feet long. There still is another Intrepid to this day at the Naval Academy,” Mr. Finley said. “I looked at the boat with another Chagrin firefighter. We looked at it and sailed it. ‘It’s a big project, it’s been sitting uncovered for 10 years.’ But the history was hard to say no to.”
He set up a GoFundMe to raise $35,000 to restore the sailboat. Mr. Finley raised $25,000 so far and thanked residents of the Chagrin Valley for their generous support of his program. He is talking with corporate sponsors as well. The boat first needs to be repaired so the crew members are safe, then they can work on its appearance. Mr. Finley said that he does not mind if the boat looks like an “ugly duckling” for a little while.
He keeps in touch with veterans from his battalion and those who are currently serving. A group of Navy corpsmen who remain friends will be the crew on the sailboat, Mr. Finley said. In 2021, he plans to relaunch the Intrepid by sailing with Navy and Marine officers as they transition away from military service. Sailing on the Intrepid can assist in physical and emotional recovery for veterans and their families, Mr. Finley said.
The Intrepid Sailing Corps has a GoFundMe page and website at intrepidsail.org.