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Navy Musician Teaches Rowing to Wounded Warriors

By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Awalt
Naval District Washington Public Affairs

WASHINGTON, June 7, 2010 – A military musician assigned to the U.S. Navy Band here teaches rowing to wounded warriors recovering at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Johnson spends almost every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon motivating wounded warriors at the center’s Mercy Hall.

Four years ago, Chief Petty Officer Michel Curtis, also a member of the Navy Band, and Johnson, began rowing at the Capitol Rowing Club here as part of their physical training regimen. Capitol Rowing Club is a masters rowing club on the Anacostia River next to the Washington Navy Yard where the Navy Band is headquartered.

Curtis, who has rowed for much of his adult life, thought other musicians would fit right in at a rowing regatta.

"I thought rowing [would be] such a natural fit with everyone's musical ability. [It is] very much related to rhythm and body awareness and it's a very technical sport which is very appealing to musicians," Curtis said.

"I thought [since] we are positioned on the Anacostia and there is a boathouse right next door to us, [then] why don't we go over there and see what happens?" he added.

Curtis and Johnson soon had 14 of their fellow musicians going to the boathouse on a weekly basis. They even put together a rowing team that won an award for being the best novice rowing crew in Washington, D.C., the year they started. The musicians found a fun way to build camaraderie while getting a good workout.

The rowing club includes an adaptive component that enables people with disabilities to row and compete in events. Club members approached Curtis and Johnson in 2006 with an idea to include wounded veterans in their adaptive program. They believed the musicians' military experience would be helpful to recruit veterans and make them feel more comfortable about participating.

"We were all enthusiastic to get involved with the vets and support their rehabilitation efforts," Curtis said. "Our familiarity with active duty military people - and our ability to relate to them on a certain level that only people in the military can understand - really helped."

Curtis and Johnson became certified U.S. rowing coaches and worked with representatives from the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympics Military Program at the Bethesda medical center to find wounded warriors who wanted to row. The program provides post-rehabilitation support to servicemen and women who have sustained severe physical injuries and other medical issues.

Heather Campbell, PMP coordinator for NNMC and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, here, helped the musicians to coordinate with the Wounded Warrior Battalion – East at NNMC's Mercy Hall barracks.

Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jose Gonzalez is tasked with overseeing the welfare of the Marines in the battalion. Most of the Marines have been deployed overseas, became injured and were sent back to the United States due to their medical conditions.

"Some Marines come up, they stay two, three weeks and their medical care is not severe enough for them to be required to stay here [so] they can seek medical attention back at their units," Gonzalez said. "But some of them are really in need of extensive medical treatment and so they remain behind. It can last anywhere from three months to six months to nine months depending on what the injuries are."

Gonzalez sees great benefit from the Marines finding ways to exercise and having something to look forward to each day. He helped the musicians and Campbell to get the Marines interested in rowing by including rowing machines, called ergs, at the Marines' daily afternoon formation. Bringing the ergs and the coaches straight to the Marines made rowing a convenient option for exercise.

"Every Tuesday, if there is any delay in the [coaches] coming, they are asking me [for them]. They say, 'We are waiting downstairs Gunny; we are ready to go.' That goes to show you they are really into participating," Gonzalez said.

One such Marine is Lance Cpl. Joshua Heck. A 22-year-old Pittsburgh native, Heck suffered a stroke in 2008 which left him with some memory loss.

"I had to learn to talk and read and write and all that fun stuff all over again. Little spots [of memory] come back," Heck said. "I'll get a year back here or there. Little ‘frames’ will set things off, but I haven't gotten the full picture back or even half of it, really."

Heck has been at Mercy Hall for seven months. He recalled the first time he saw Johnson at one of their daily formations.

"They were trying to get everybody involved in some sort of activity [to] get us out of the barracks room,” Heck recalled, “and I was, like, 'You know, that looks like something I could pace myself at.'"

By the following week, Heck and fellow Mercy Hall resident Marine Sgt. Adam Sanchez were competing in indoor rowing competitions.

"I took silver in one and I just stuck with it after that. I got a machine in my room," Heck said. “I've worked my way up."

If the Marines are interested enough after Tuesday practices on the erg, Johnson drives to Bethesda on Thursdays and brings them back to the Capitol Rowing Club to coach them on the water.

"I think the things that they do coming out here, it [means] a lot," Sanchez said. "They want to help and improve us while we get better and show us that there is still that camaraderie of being physical."

And, for Marines, being physical is extremely important. According to Sanchez, when he arrived at Mercy Hall after being injured, he felt down on himself for being out of the fight. The program has helped those feelings go away, he said, and has helped him both physically and mentally.

"I didn't want anything to do with rowing – did not like attending it or doing it or anything,” Sanchez recalled. “But once I tried it a few times, I grew more fascinated with it and I figured out it helped a lot in my recovery.

"In a matter of three-and-a-half-months, I went from actually getting on a walker from being bed ridden to just walking regularly,” he continued. “And it was all because of the physical [opportunities] that they opened up for us. I hope other guys can look at it and take advantage of it."

"A lot of the kids [referring to the young Marines] are just like 'My God, what's happened? My life's over,'" Johnson said. "It is about showing them, 'No, it's not over; you just have to keep going.'"


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