“I had been doing nothing but sitting around watching too much TV. Wasting away,” a soldier once told me. “And one day I saw this guy walking down the hall with a kayak over his shoulder. And he calls out, ‘Hey, whattaya you doing? Want to learn how to kayak?’ This got me off the couch. Gave me something to look forward to.”
It starts in the pool. Getting in the kayak and finding your balance. Learning proper paddle technique, getting used to how it feels to be upside down in the water and learning to roll (which is a way of righting yourself after being upended by using your torso and paddle).
Joe Mornini was the guy with the kayak. A high school teacher and an avid, experienced kayaker, he created Team River Runner to help veterans at Walter Reed Military Hospital rehabilitate. Six years later the mostly volunteer organization continues to give veterans an opportunity to learn new skills and experience new adventures along the road to recovery.
Everybody is meeting in the parking area across from Old Anglers Inn in Potomac, MD. A van filled with boats and equipment is quickly swarmed by volunteers and veterans. Someone is passing out helmets, PFDs (personal flotation devices), paddles, and kayaks of various sizes and shapes. There is much joking and laughter, lots of hugs. It seems everyone is assisting everyone in the preparation to paddle. Angler’s put-in is where the weeks of training in Walter Reed’s indoor pool pay off.
Among those ready to hit the water are a Vietnam vet who lost both legs to a landmine—he has a kayak specially fitted with two leg “sockets”; an Iraq War vet who spent a week in a coma after an IED explosion, and another who lost the use of his right lower leg after being shot with an AK47 – his leg was later amputated below the knee; and several PTSD patients on their first river outing.
The newer kayakers will practice paddling and rolling techniques in the calm waters of the C & O Canal. The more experienced group ventures down to the Potomac River for a little playboating at Maryland Chute or Offutt Island. Their rolling techniques are quickly put to real-world test as they try to surf the waves or “holes.” One wrong move and the kayak flips and is spit down river. One must either right oneself… or swim. You then paddle back into position and get back at it.
Recovery is slow and arduous. But the commitment, tenacity, perseverance, and attention to detail that was required in the military clearly serves them well here. From hospital bed to pool to canal to whitewater, these vets, these Wounded Warriors, exemplify that extraordinary human capacity to overcome.