While many travelers visit St. John for therapeutic getaways, for one group of wounded American service men and women, their Love City trip is also a time to rebuild self confidence and regain a sense of independence.
Team River Runner is planning its third trip to St. John this November, and while soaking up the rays is definitely on its agenda, so are adaptive kayak training sessions and long-distance snorkeling trips.
Originally launched at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2004 by D.C. area kayaker Joe Mornini, the adaptive kayak program TRR now boasts chapters at veterans’ hospitals across the country. The program has proven to be a popular and effective therapy for wounded veterans as adaptive kayaking is an inclusive sport while still being physically and mentally demanding.
In addition to the St. John travels, TRR leads numerous kayak trips and adventures across the country from the rushing Salmon River in Idaho to the calm waters of Key Largo. Participants in these trips master kayak skills while building relationships with fellow veterans and family members.
TRR is so popular, in fact, alumni of the program are taking leadership roles in the organization. This is the first time that TRR participants are organizing the Love City kayak trip, planned for the first week of November.
Two of TRR’s three St. John trip team leaders were on island last week planning their upcoming kayak adventure.
“This is the first time that veterans are the team leaders for the Virgin Islands trip,” said Leif Lange, one of the three veteran leaders for TRR’s St. John trip. “There are so many different organizations out there, but this one is my favorite because they do so much to help the guys and girls.”
“It’s really hard for some to adapt or find a network of other wounded veterans,” said Lange. “Through TRR, they can come out here and really just enjoy it, but also meet other wounded vets. It really opens up a lot.”
Twenty wounded veterans, along with one family member or guest each, will spend a week at Cinnamon Bay Campground from November 1 through 7. While accommodations and many meals have already been taken care of for the group, they still need funding.
“The biggest part of this whole thing is raising the funds,” said Lange. “It costs $45,000 for 20 veterans for one week. We have so much support on the ground, but we need money.”
Lange, along with Sean Lewis and Pete Rooney are the team leaders of TRR’s St. John trip. Lewis and Rooney are also alumni of the group’s kayak trips to St. John and Lange recently completed TRR’s training stateside.
Rooney is the team’s veteran participation coordinator, Lewis oversees fundraising and project coordination while Lange is the team’s kayak leader and he’s looking to add some fishing to the outings as well.
While TRR’s St. John trip offers veterans a tranquil Caribbean getaway, the time these team members spend on the island really means a lot more than just a vacation, explained Lewis.
“St. John is the perfect place for us to come because it’s beautiful and the people are wonderful, but also the spirituality of it,” said Lewis. “Think of it as being reborn in a way. A lot of these guys and girls are really being physically reborn into life.”
“Can you pick a more beautiful place to be reborn than this,” Lewis said.
Lange adopted a powerful motto for TRR’s November trip — Fight to Live, Live to Serve.
“We have to teach these veterans how to live again,” said Lange. “A lot of these guys and girls, since they got blown up, aren’t getting out there anymore. The sky, the water — these guys haven’t been out in nature so we want to get them over the edge where they want to live.”
“But there is also a lot of guilt involved with living in a situation where other people get you physically on your feet,” Lange said. “So when you’re maintaining you cannot live for yourself, you have to live for your brothers and sisters. That is the purpose of ‘Live to Serve.”
As Lewis, Rooney and Lange work to make the upcoming TRR trip a success, the trio are also looking for local veterans to join November’s kayak adventure.
“We want to expand next year to include a second week just for Virgin Islands veterans,” said Lewis. “We know there are a lot of veterans here, but they don’t really get recognition. For our November trip we have one room set aside for a veteran from the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.”
As TRR continues to expand, it never deviates from its original intent — to help wounded veterans through therapeutic kayaking. For his years of dedication, TRR founder Mornini was recently granted the Silver Helmut Award, the highest possible honor awarded to a civilian for serving veterans.
Lewis, Lange and Rooney are also working to expand the group’s St. John trips in the future to include two additional weeks, one for TRR leadership training and the second for veterans from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
In addition to donating funds, the group can always use donations of kayaks, goggles and snorkel gear, Lewis added.
For more information about making a donation to TRR’s St. John trip or to contact the group, check out www.teamriverrunner.org.