Above: TRR wounded veterans at Cinnamon Bay.
Below: Brandi Schuld, Sean Lewis, Pete Rooney and Andy Butterworth.
St. John Chaotic Kayak will take to the sea on August 28 in a community-wide event to raise funds to bring wounded veterans back to the island again this year.
Team River Runner, the non profit organization dedicated to healing veterans through paddle sports, has been coming to St. John each November since 2007 with the exception of 2008 when lack of funds resulted in a cancelled trip.
“But not this year, not if I can help it,” said John Schuld, who founded St. John Chaotic Kayak, the community fundraiser supporting TRR’s Wounded Veterans USVI program, with his wife, Brandi. “If I had the money, I’d cut them a check today, but it is so much more important to get the community involved. The community has already taken ownership for this program — they are seeing the importance of it.”
The recent outpouring of community support has already helped St. John Chaotic Kayak raise nearly half of its $15,000 goal ahead of race day, funds which will go toward airfare to bring around 10 wounded veterans and their spouses to St. John in November.
The upcoming event has already generated enough support from island businesses to increase its target number of 16 teams to 20 teams which race at Gibney Beach during the noon to 5 event on Sunday.
Schuld, who hopes to meet — and possibly exceed — his fundraising goal on race day, said programs like TRR keep veterans’ spirits up and give them a sense of purpose by replacing the camaraderie that has been lost. Citing the alarming statistic that an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide, he said TRR is saving lives.
“For every $400 or $500 that we raise, that is one more wounded veteran we can bring to St. John and one more person we can potentially save,” said Schuld, a veteran who served in two combat tours as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army from 1986 to 1991 and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder in 2004. “It’s not just a statement to these 10 or 12 wounded vets we are bringing to St. John, but a statement to the country that more should be done for these men and women who’ve risked their lives and sacrificed.”
TRR has grown into a national presence with around 30 active locations across the country and hundreds of volunteers and veterans paddling in dozens of rivers and oceans each week, according to Joe Mornini, TRR’s executive director who launched the program in 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.
“This program can teach blind veterans how to paddle whitewater in their own boat with a guide and has incomplete quadriplegics paddling and racing in sprint kayak races,” Mornini said. “We have yet to find a disability we can’t get into a boat except those with tracheotomies who can’t close their mouths underwater safely.”
But despite TRR’s national growth, Mornini said the program is vastly underutilized, relatively unknown and severely underfunded.
The said the November leadership clinics on St. John allow veterans’ wives to network and learn to support each other when their husbands return wounded and allow veterans to escape the “ground hog” day living in the hospital or at home healing between medical appointments.
“A lot of these guys who will be coming here in November are right out of the hospital,” Schuld said. “When these veterans come here and see the list of all these businesses and bars and restaurants who worked together to bring them down here, I think it will inspire them.”
Gary Clark, who helps coordinate the program, said TRR relies heavily on the kindness of the island community to pull off this costly endeavor focused on helping wounded veterans and their spouses heal in the natural beauty of St. John. During the upcoming week-long trip, wounded veterans will be taken out of their daily routines to spend six or more hours on the water each day kayaking, snorkeling and bonding on St. John.
The Schulds met Mornini and TRR last November when they kayaked and camped with them on Cinnamon Bay. They say the encounter resulted in a life changing experience for them and the idea to establish St. John Chaotic Kayak, the first in what they hope to be an annual event.
St. John Chaotic Kayak is encouraging the entire community to attend the Aug. 28 event — including live music, food and drinks provided by Skinny Legs, St. John Brewers, Woody’s and Joe’s Pizza, and a raffle with everything from day sails, sunset cruises and kayak trips to free villa stays, dinners and jewelry — with all proceeds benefiting TRR’s Wounded Veterans USVI program.
While the entry fee for each team is $150, individual businesses have the opportunity to gain five-second lead times for every additional $100 they raise, according to Schuld. High Tide’s “Beach Games” event on August 14 raised over $1,000 buying them a 50-second lead in the race and the Beach Bar’s “Live Jukebox for GI’s Nite” charged $10 per song to support the cause and help them gain an edge on race day.
St. John Chaotic Kayak will hold a meeting on Friday, August 26, at 5:30 p.m. at the Inn at Tamarind Court. At least one member from each team is required to attend the meeting where teams will be randomly selected and placed into heats and additional funds raised by individual teams will be calculated to buy them time in the race.
“These businesses that are showing their support by getting in a kayak will get to see the results of these funds and know we did this as a community,” Schuld said.