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America Supports You: Wounded Warriors Tackle Adaptive Adventure

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands, Oct. 26, 2007 – Seven wounded warriors arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands last week for an adventure set on the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

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Kevin Pannell (left), Melanie Kaplan (center), a Team River Runner volunteer, and Andrew Butterworth try out sit-on-top kayaks Oct. 18, 2007. Both Pannell and Butterworth lost legs while serving in Iraq. Pannell lost both legs above the knee, and Butterworth lost his right leg above the knee. The trio participated in Team River Runner's inaugural adaptive paddling trip to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, Oct. 17-21. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

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Team River Runner, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, organized its inaugural trip to introduce the mostly double-leg amputees to adaptive sea kayaking, snorkeling and camping. The greater goal extended beyond the physical with the hope of fulfilling the theme of the trip: “Health and Healing Through Adaptive Paddling.”

“One of the things that’s most obvious is the physical benefits from kayaking,” said Phil Sayre, a member of Team River Runner’s board of directors. “Another component besides the physical gain is the confidence.”

The group’s main objective was to paddle the six miles from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the British Virgin Islands in sea kayaks. The trip came off without a hitch.

“When you do that, you realize that you can do a lot of things,” Sayre said.

That’s just what Joe Mornini, director of Team River Runner, hoped the veterans would realize.

“Everybody in this group, from the veterans’ side … has mobility issues,” Mornini said. “I believe strongly in giving them the opportunity to do what everybody else does, which is to earn what they get.”

Mornini, who teaches recovering vets at military medical facilities and veterans hospitals how to paddle, said kayaking and snorkeling levels the playing field for everyone regardless of mobility issues.

“The water is a beautiful place,” he said. “It’s a great equalizer for people that have mobility issues or disabilities.”

He said he chose this location partly because of the accommodating climate and waters. Familiarity also was key. He’s kayaked and snorkeled here six times before. His last visit, in the spring, served double duty as a reconnaissance mission for the current trip. The setting, Mornini said, would help accomplish the healing portion of the trip.

“The scenery is so beautiful, even if you get in a bad mood and you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, you look around and you’re like, ‘God! It’s just so beautiful here,’” he explained.

For the group of seven veterans, all either amputees or mobility challenged, and their spouses, that was exactly the reaction to the surroundings. Though they were aware of the challenges that faced them when they set out, they also were excited about the opportunities the trip presented.

“On the slopes, I’m a little bit more of an advanced skier than (my wife),” said Christopher Fesmire, referring to adaptive winter sports programs in which the couple has participated. The former Marine lost both of his legs above the knee while serving in Iraq. “This trip, Willow and I, we can get out there the first day and get in a kayak together … and go kayaking.”

One thing the group didn’t expect was the warm welcome it received from local groups.

Not only did local merchants donate equipment rentals and meals, members of the St. Thomas American Legion met the group at the airport when it arrived. Members of the St. John chapter of the veterans’ group also met the veterans at the ferry dock when they arrived on the island.

The generosity also came from local citizens who anonymously picked up the dinner tab when the group ate at a well-known eatery during its stay on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands.

Disabled Sports USA is a supporter of America Supports You, a Defense Department program connecting citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.

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Related Sites:
America Supports You
Team River Runner
Disabled Sports USA

Click photo for screen-resolution imageParticipants in Team River Runner's inaugural adaptive paddling trip to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, sit in the shade while they receive kayaking instructions Oct. 18, 2007. The group - seven veterans, four spouses and Team River Runner volunteers - spent five days kayaking and snorkeling in the area, culminating in an open sea paddle to Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSeven veterans injured while serving in Iraq, and four of their spouses, left their mark at Foxy's, a well-known restaurant on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands on Oct. 20, 2007. The group participated in Team River Runner's inaugural adaptive paddling trip to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, part of the organization's efforts to encourage war-injured veterans to push their boundaries. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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