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Florida Man Helps Veterans Heal Through Water-Bound Recreational Therapy

For the past five years, Branson Rector has taken veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder out onto the water not just to experience the warm Miami breeze – but to heal and rebuild their lives.

After retiring from the Army in 2009 as a logistics officer, he saw that veterans dealing with PTSD and other issues were not adjusting well to their lives that awaited them at home.

“I thought, why not take them out on the water, and in this beautiful and relaxing setting tell them about the help they can receive,” Miami-based Branson, 50, tells PEOPLE.

“We took eight to 10 guys on that first sail, and it was unbelievable,” he says. “They all started to relax, and for just a minute they forgot about their problems.”

He knew he wanted to do it again.

So that year, Branson founded the nonprofit, all-volunteer group Veterans Ocean Adventures, which has now helped more than 1,500 veterans and their families.

The organizations teach them many water sports including sailing, scuba diving and kayaking. Branson also recently added indoor rock climbing.

They also help the veterans through professional counselors.

Branson, who has a full-time job during the week as a civilian officer at U.S. Southern Command, spends every single weekend working for the not-for-profit organization.

“They’re out on the water, and there are no noises but the wind. There is no traffic or stress,” says Branson. “It’s the most rewarding feeling in the world to think that I am helping to heal even one veteran,” he says.

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Veterans and volunteers on Flag Day

Veterans Ocean Adventure

The organization, which is funded entirely by donations and grants, doesn’t charge anything for the veterans to participate in the activities and programs.

One of those veterans is Chuck Kays, 61, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1970 because he wanted to help his country.

“I enjoyed my time in the Navy,” Kays, of West Palm Beach, Florida, tells PEOPLE.

After returning from the war, though, he eventually lost his vision, plunging him into depression.

“I lost all of the happiness in my life,” he says.

At Kays’s lowest point, a friend mentioned Veterans Ocean Adventures.

“When my friend told me that this guy Branson could help me by taking me out on the water, I thought he was crazy,” he says. “But now I can say that he didn’t just help me – he saved me.”

Since Kays met Branson three years ago, he has become a rescue diver and has gone on 70 dives in the past year alone.

He also takes photographs underwater – despite being legally blind.

“If I had not met Branson and got into the water, I might not exist anymore,” he says.

Comfort for Veterans’ Families

The organization also helps veterans’ families.

Maria Ortega, 52, who lives in Homestead, Florida, lost her son in 2010 when he was killed in Afghanistan.

In September, Ortega and her daughter, Edna, 22, were invited by Branson to mark Gold Star Mother’s Day – which honors parents of soldiers killed in combat – to join him and other parents on an afternoon sail.

“We went out on the water, and for one moment it felt like a new world,” Ortega tells PEOPLE.

“I didn’t think about anything else but the ocean,” she says.

Edna saw the change in her mother immediately.

“She is still devastated by my brother’s passing,” she tells PEOPLE, “but she talked to other mothers who were going through the same thing, and she looked happy.

“It felt like we were in a dream,” she says. “All of our pain went away for that moment.”

When Branson sees this transformation in a veteran or a family member – for even just a minute – he remembers why he does this.

“Veterans need our help, and seeing what I can do for them makes it all worth it,” he says.

“But it’s not me at the end of the day that’s helping – it’s the water.”

Know a hero? Send suggestions to [email protected]. For more inspiring stories, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine

Source: Florida Man Helps Veterans Heal Through Water-Bound Recreational Therapy

Prince William Jokes About Using Christmas Bells to Keep Track of Son George

Prince William Jokes About Using Christmas Bells to Keep Track of Son George

Prince William gets a gift of Christmas bells

Paul Edwards/Getty

11/12/2014 AT 08:30 PM EST

Prince William knew just what to do with a set of Christmas bells he got from some schoolchildren he met Wednesday outside London – use them as an audible alarm system on his toddler son.

“We’ll put these in [George’s] pockets and then we’ll know where he is in the house!” William, 32, joked after receiving the little bag of red bell Christmas ornaments from 9-year-old Dylan Marten Hughes.

The children, from three primary schools in Watford, near London, had been showing William a project that portrayed a man in a suit made of poppies. “Each of the poppies represent a soldier who died,” Thomas Brooker, 10, told him of the Remembrance Day project.

The children had taken part in a course run by SkillForce, a charity the Duke supports. After meeting them, William was given a painting depicting the battle at Nimy Bridge where Lt. Maurice Dease won the first posthumous Victoria Cross of the First World War. William visited his grave with his wife, Princess Kate, in August.

After Anmer Hameed and Laura Stafford, both 9, made the presentation, they told William about some of the sports – including dodgeball – they’ve been playing as part of their award. And William said he’d be in touch. “You’ll have to teach me dodgeball,” he joked with them.

William was in black tie and dinner suit for the 10th anniversary gala dinner at the Imperial War Museum for SkillForce, which draws on the skills of former servicemen to serve as role models for young people.

During the reception, William chatted with Keri-Anne Payne, 26, a two-time World 10 km Open Water champion, and an Olympic silver medalist who was helped by SkillForce when she arrived in the U.K. from South Africa at the age of 13.

She is now an ambassador for the charity. “They helped me settle, showed me the surrounding areas, gave me life-saving skills and gave me a sense of what Britain is like,” she said.

William is “really engaging with the children,” she added.

Source: Prince William Jokes About Using Christmas Bells to Keep Track of Son George

Britney Spears’ New Man Gets a Stamp of Approval from Her Family

Britney Spears' New Man Gets a Stamp of Approval from Her Family

Charlie Ebersol and Britney Spears

Courtesy Britney Spears

11/12/2014 AT 08:15 PM EST

Britney Spears isn’t the only one smitten with her new boyfriend, writer and producer, Charlie Ebersol.

Her family is also very happy with the new romance. “He does well financially and is very private,” says a Spears source. “They don’t have to worry about whether he is using Britney.”

And although the relationship is new he has already met her sons, Preston, 9, and Jayden, 8.

Ebersol – whose parents are Dick Ebersol, Saturday Night Live co-creator and former NBC Sports chairman, and actress Susan Saint James, star of the ’80s sitcom Kate & Allie – started his own production company at 27. “He is driven, smart and ambitious,” says a source.

Ebersol and Spears met through a friend and the pop star appears grateful for that introduction. During Britney Day in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 she referred to him as her special someone. And according to a source, “she has been in the best mood” since meeting Ebersol and “finds him cute and funny.”

For more inside their relationship, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday

Source: Britney Spears’ New Man Gets a Stamp of Approval from Her Family

A Sporty Princess Kate Meets with Young Athletes

A Sporty Princess Kate Meets with Young Athletes

Princess Kate meets with potential young athletes at a SportsAid workshop

PA Photos/Landov

11/12/2014 AT 01:45 PM EST

Sports enthusiast Princess Kate has excitedly cheered on athletes at the 2012 Olympics, wowed in white while supporting Andy Murray at Wimbledon and played volleyball wearing sky-high wedge heels.

But, it was a different love of sports that drew Kate, 32, to a workshop Wednesday, where she met the sports stars of tomorrow.

Kate, who is about 16 weeks pregnant, attended the workshop run by one of the charities she supports, Sports Aid – which provides young athletes with cash awards during the defining early years of their careers – at the GSK Human Performance Lab in Brentford, West London.

The royal, who has been suffering from severe pregnancy sickness, wore a plum dress by Goat over her tiny baby bump. She paired it with opaque black tights and knee-high elasticated black boots.

After being greeted by Olympic swimmer Keri-Anne Payne and wheelchair athlete David Weir CBE, Kate met the athletes – many of whom are targeting the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – and took part in a cognitive test that was among several programs that put the athletes through their paces during the all-day event.

Kate had been frustrated at not being able to join in much during the visit, but when they got to the test of mental agility, she was asked to try. “Finally, something I can do while I am pregnant!” Kate said.

Kate was given four tests of increasing difficultly by neuroscientist Barry O’Neill, which involved her tapping colored circles on a large screen.

But she pulled a mock grimace when she was told that top sportsmen – Formula One driver Jensen Button and British triathletes the Brownlee brothers – had recently tried it.

“Hmmmm,” she said, “no pressure then!”

O’Neill, 34, told reporters afterwards, “She actually did very well for a woman of her age. I’m not being rude, I must stress, but your reflexes do decrease every decade you age.”

He continued: “Until now, sports science has concentrated on what we call a headless approach. Concentrate on the body and leave the mind to somewhere else. We are trying to change that here.”

“It’s remarkable that people haven’t really thought before of working the mind and body as one,” remarked Kate. “This could be used in so many environments, even in an office. It is absolutely fascinating.”

Data from some of the advanced performance tests (including one in an environmental chamber set up to match the heat and humidity of Tokyo) will be given to the athletes’ coaches to help inform their training and competition programs.

When she saw the test that had the oppressive heat of what the athletes might face at the 2020 games, she exclaimed “Wow!”

“You seem super calm and relaxed, how on earth are you doing it?” she asked. “It’s lovely to experience the science behind everything. But I am sorry that we are all watching you have to go through this.”

Kate has been patron of SportsAid since 2013 and the charity works to bring financial and practical assistance to young British athletes. About two-thirds of the British team that took part in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were recipients of the charity’s support.

Kate is undertaking a series of engagements since returning to royal duties after her illness. Over the weekend, she and William visited Wales, while Thursday the couple is heading to the Royal Variety Performance for the first time.

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Source: A Sporty Princess Kate Meets with Young Athletes