America Supports You: Adaptive Adventure Equals Healing for Injured Vets
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
JOST VAN DYKE, British Virgin Islands, Oct. 30, 2007 A group of injured war veterans on a 12-mile round-trip kayak adventure paused on the shores of this small British island earlier this month for a two-night stay at a campground locally known as “Ivan’s.”
A sign at “Ivan’s Local Flavor Stress Free Bar,” part of White Bay Campground on Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, says it all for a group of injured war veterans and their spouses. For the veterans participating in a Team River Runner adaptive kayaking and camping adventure trip, Ivan’s did, indeed equal healing. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The most structured thing about Ivan’s, or as it’s formally known, White Bay Campground, is “Ivan’s Local Flavor Stress Free Bar,” which still works on the honor system; take a beverage, write it down and pay up before you leave. Decorated from floor to ceiling, inside and out, with shells and shell art from previous patrons, it exudes relaxation.
“It’s like being deserted on a tropical island, but you know you’re going to be rescued,” said Army Sgt. Peter Rooney, who lost both legs above the knee in April when the Humvee he was riding in hit a roadside bomb near Ramadi, Iraq. “Peaceful, but at the same time you know you’re in a remote location, so it has that edge to it.”
One sign verifies that past visitors agree with Rooney. In pieces of coral and shell it says, “Ivan’s = Healing.”
Getting to Ivan’s was the reward for a long day that began with what surely sounded like a strange request to others staying at Cinnamon Bay campground on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands: “All legs in the dry bag!” yelled Joe Mornini, director of Team River Runner, which organized the trip for the veterans, most of whom have lost both legs serving in a combat zone.
The laughter his command drew only increased with Danielle Pannell’s response. “Have legs will travel!” she said, dropping her husband’s prosthetic legs into a blue rubber bag. A power boat carried the bag of legs as well as three of the veterans’ wheelchairs on the trip to Jost Van Dyke.
Danielle’s husband, Kevin Pannell, is a former soldier who lost both of his legs above the knee while on a foot patrol in Baghdad.
With hardware and passengers settled into their respective vessels, all left Cinnamon Bay on a trek across the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.
About four hours later, the group was setting up camp and figuring out how to negotiate the new beach with its unique sand. The soft, almost powdery sand that makes up Ivan’s campground was worse for traction than the variety found at Cinnamon Bay.
“Everybody’s front axles are below the sand,” Bill Johnston said of his and the other wheelchairs. Johnston, a former Marine, lost both of his legs nearly 40 years ago while serving in Vietnam.
The chairs, in fact, sank into the sand, making it difficult for Johnston and the others to move. The immediate solution was a plastic tarp that kept the wheels on the sand instead of in it.
The lack of mobility in the sand for those in wheelchairs - Johnston, Rooney and former Marine Christopher Fesmire - encouraged creativity and teamwork, however. Fesmire got a piggyback ride out of the surf from Phil Sayre, a member of Team River Runner’s board of directors, after snorkeling.
“He described the sand to me,” Mornini said of the director of the Arawak Expeditions, a local company that guided the international expedition. “Well, it’s a hell of lot more sand than I thought it was going to be. Then the guys that are here say, ‘Well, this is cool. We’ll get through it. We’ll make it, but next time, do this, bring this,’” he said.
To help battle the sand and the chafing it caused, Mornini said, he’d dig deep into his bag of parenting tricks for the next trip.
“If everybody had two bottles of baby powder, they wouldn’t care about the sand,” Mornini said. “When you get sand on your skin … the talcum bonds with the sand, and you brush it all off and it’s gone, and there’s no abrasion.
“It’s on my list now,” he added. “It’s on my list to get a wheelchair with balloon tires, too.”
The second night on the island, the group ate dinner at “Foxy’s” a restaurant favored among local residents and tourists alike. Here, the veterans and their wives discovered something that’s definitely nice to have while camping so far from home. It won’t be found on any packing list, however.
While the group ate in the open-air restaurant under rafters covered with mementoes of past diners, a patron picked up the tab and quietly left, asking an employee to pass along a message of thanks to the veterans.
As everyone packed up the next morning, Mornini declared it a successful trip of “yakking and snorking.” He reserved his greatest praise, however, for the landing at Cruz Bay, St. John, after everyone had cleared U.S. Customs.
“That’s where we just came from,” he said pointing out the taxi window at Jost Van Dyke, seemingly forever away. “We did great.”
Team River Runner is a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, a supporter of “America Supports You,” a Defense Department program connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.