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.
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.”
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