- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

HELENVILLE, Wis. (AP) - Nic Doucette is organized, in shape and determined.

And by the time he heads back to classes at UW-Whitewater next fall, he should also be an expert with a paddle. His real goal, however, is to raise money for his comrades in the U.S. armed services injured in the line of duty.

Doucette, 27, a former U.S. Marine who graduated from Jefferson High School, has never traversed the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada, paddled Michigan’s Sylvania Wilderness and Recreation Area or even pitched a tent on a sandbar during an overnight trip down the Lower Wisconsin River.

But come late May, Docucette and fellow Marine Gabe Vasquez will embark on a trip of a lifetime. The Wisconsinite and Texan plan to kayak down the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.

That’s 2,552 miles in about two and half months with each man in his own kayak dodging floating logs, portaging around beaver dams, sharing locks with barges and avoiding the large wakes of clueless pleasure boaters.

“It sounds insane, I know,” Doucette told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/OXBCO7). “The key is getting out early each day to avoid the head winds.”

The trip is designed to raise $25,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit that provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support for injured and critically ill service members. The organization, founded in 2003, spends just 6 percent of its money on administrative and fund-raising costs and has received top ratings from charity watchdog groups, according to its website. Doucette and Vasquez are spending their own money on the trip, about $1,500 each. No money donated to the Semper Fi Fund is being used to cover their costs.

Doucette’s inspiration came from his time in southern Afghanistan in the fall of 2010 where he was part of a unit that cleared roads of improvised explosive devices.

It was the day after Thanksgiving. Stateside, we were trying to save a few bucks on a television, computer or video game. But for two of Doucette’s buddies in Afghanistan, the day was life-changing.

That’s when Sgt. Gabriel Martinez of Colorado and Cpl. Justin Gaertner of Florida each stepped on pressure plate-activated IEDs while using their metal detectors. Both men lost their legs but survived and were assisted by the Semper Fi Fund.

“They were two of the best sweepers you could ask for,” said Doucette, who was not on the mission in which the men were injured. “It was tough.”

Both men have recovered and with prosthetics, are active again. In April, Martinez visited victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. According to the Semper Fi Fund, Martinez, 25, “drives a specially outfitted truck, races a hand-operated tricycle and gets help around the house from his service dog, Wonka.”

Gaertner, according to the website, Homes for our Troops, enjoys mono-skiing, surfing, snorkeling, sky diving, running and fishing and hunting. Do a search and you’ll find a 55-second YouTube video of Gaertner water skiing on a specially built board.

“They do some pretty incredible stuff,” Doucette said. “It’s really crazy the stuff they’ve accomplished since they’ve lost their legs.”

At a meeting with Doucette at his in-laws’ home in rural Jefferson County, he had his gear laid out on the living room floor. There was a tent, a cot, sleeping bag, marine radio, binoculars, rain gear, a collapsible shovel, compact stove and a cooking ware set, among other items. He had bound navigational maps but also an app for his phone that shows the route of the river and his location via GPS.

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