America Supports You: Wounded Troops Get Whitewater Fundraising
By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 11, 2006 Boy Scouts, sorority groups, businessmen and veterans will come together for two fundraisers this spring to help a group of kayakers continue their river-borne rehabilitation effort for wounded troops.
Jason Beakes holds a prosthetic leg for Army Sgt. Brandon Huff at the end of the day''s runs at Dickerson Whitewater Course, in Dickerson, Md., March 12. Beakes, a champion whitewater kayaker, volunteers with Team River Runner, teaching kayaking to disabled veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Neil Hermansdorfer
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
The first fundraiser for "Team River Runner" is a dinner May 13 at American Legion Post 177, in Fairfax, Va. It will include a silent auction, a raffle, live music and other entertainment.
The second, called "Paddling for Possibilities," will be held June 4 on the Potomac River at Boonsboro, Md. Wounded troops, their families, and medical staff from Walter Reed Army Medical Center here will go onto the rapids for a five-mile paddle in kayaks and river rafts sponsored by local businesses.
"There's a great deal of benefit just to getting into a boat and training," said Joe Mornini, executive director of Team River Runner, a nonprofit group teaching wounded veterans to kayak. "Every time I leave Walter Reed, I reaffirm my faith in why I do this."
Team River Runner, now two years old, has found support for its rehabilitation mission from across the country. Other grassroots groups, such as "Yellow Ribbon Fund" and "Fisher House," have also lent their support to the effort. Many of those groups are members of "America Supports You," a Defense Department program highlighting grassroots and corporate support for America's troops and their families.
"What we've found as we've gone forward with this program is that people in this country just want to support our troops, and our wounded troops especially," said Mike McCormick, the group's vice president. "Doors fly open when we say we need help and volunteers."
McCormick, a former national champion kayaker, and Mornini, a kayak instructor, founded Team River Runner after meeting fellow kayaker Walter Weiss on the Potomac in June 2004. Weiss, a doctor at Walter Reed, connected them with Army Lt. Col. Barbara Springer, chief of physical therapy at the hospital.
Soon the group started doing weekly kayaking lessons in the hospital pool. To date, 30 volunteers, many of them highly qualified instructors, have trained over 100 students. Many of those students take to the rapids on weekend trips with the team, McCormick said.
Working with boat designers, the group has come up with ways to adapt kayaks to different injuries, carving out foaming systems to replace prosthetics. And when prosthetics need to be tweaked to adapt to the boats, the group calls on Mike Corcoran, a prosthetic expert at Walter Reed who was an Olympic canoeist with the Irish team.
Even patients with upper extremity amputations have enjoyed success in the program. "We actually had one guy who was able to fashion for himself an arm prosthetic that he could use on his kayak paddle, and he actually rolled in the pool," McCormick said.
Family members are welcome to train with the team, too, McCormick said. He believes helping brothers learn to kayak together and giving mothers the chance to maneuver the boats with their wounded sons and daughters helps everyone heal.
"Sometimes there's a lot of trepidation, and people are nervous about whether or not they're going to be able to accomplish a physical activity," he said. "The fact that it's right there in the hospital, they can kind of come down and look at people doing it in the pool, make a decision. It's very welcoming to them."
McCormick said watching the turnaround in individuals' attitudes can be incredible. One woman, 26, who lost her leg in Iraq, came to the pool in the fall with her dad and very hesitantly got into the water.
"Within 20 minutes of being on the boat, she was laughing underwater," he said. "She got really enthusiastic about not only kayaking, but sports in general. That was like the first week of September of 2005, and then at the New York marathon, which was two months later, she got a hand cycle and completed the whole marathon."
Not everyone has the same euphoric reaction to a first experience with a kayak, McCormick said, but the sport helps many wounded servicemembers see themselves in new and healthier ways.
"People get in the kayak and they realize that if they've got a lower limb injury, it's not visible," he said. "We had one guy tell us, 'This levels the playing field.'"