Team River Runner bring adventurous amputees to St. John
While St. John is usually filled with honeymooners and families enjoying leisurely vacations, the island welcomed visitors last week who were on a much more meaningful journey.
A group of injured veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars spent five days last week exploring St. John and the British Virgin Islands.
Six amputee war veterans — and one veteran with limited movement in both legs — along with four of their wives made the trip with four volunteers from Team River Runner (TRR), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit adaptive kayak program founded three years ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Joe Mornini started TRR, a volunteer organization and chapter of Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warriors Project, with Mike McCormick to offer high-adventure activities to wounded veterans.
For most of the veterans and their wives it was their first visit to St. John and the Caribbean.
“This is my first time out of the country where no one is shooting at me,” said Kevin Pannell of Hot Springs, AR, who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq.
But this group couldn’t be found lounging in hammocks under coconut trees enjoying the peacefulness. After settling in at Cinnamon Bay Campground on
Wednesday night, October 17, the TRR group got busy the very next day kayaking out to Whistling Cay and snorkeling around Cinnamon Cay.
And that was just the beginning for this adventure group. After enjoying a breakfast with the American Legion Viggo E. Sewer Post #131 and its auxiliary at
Cinnamon Bay on Friday morning, they kayaked to Jost Van Dyke where the group camped at Ivan’s before exploring the waters around the British Virgin Islands.
“I spent four years jumping out of airplanes, so I guess I am a bit crazy — you have to be,” said Andy Butterworth, a Raleigh, NC, U.S. Army and National Guard veteran who served in Kosovo and Iraq.
From Sea Kayaking To Triathlons
Butterworth was not joking — he was scheduled to compete in an Army veteran triathlon when he returned to the states.
Whatever it takes to kayak from St. John to Jost Van Dyke, these visiting veterans were living lessons in perseverance who participate in many more activities than kayaking.
Chris Fesmire of Colorado, whose wife Willow was also on the trip, got involved with TRR through adaptive skiing.
“Living in Colorado there are tons of rivers around us and TRR runs programs right behind our house,” said Fesmire, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq. “Sitting at home looking out the windows there are just mountains and rivers. I had to get out there.”
Quality Time With Wives
While Chris and Willow Fesmire have been on several adaptive ski trips with the Wounded Warriors Project, they usually don’t get quality time together on the mountain.
“We’ve been on skiing trips together, but I’m a better skier than Willow so we usually don’t get to spend much time together,” Chris Fesmire said. “Yesterday we climbed into a kayak together and paddled around for three hours. We also enjoyed swimming together.”
John Jones, from San Antonio, TX, who served alongside Fesmire with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, works closely with the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA.
“I went snow shoeing, water skiing, rock climbing and white water rafting with the Wounded Warriors Project,” said Jones, whose wife Amber was a part of the group as well. “I became a national spokesman for them and help to raise money for veterans to be able to go on trips like this.”
Military men are top-notch athletes who aren’t ready to give that up after they get injured in battle. And thanks to groups like TRR, don’t have to, Jones explained.
“I’m active and I don’t like to sit around and do nothing,” Jones said. “Getting the rest of the marines, soldiers and sailors to understand that they can still be active is important. Just because they lost their legs or whatever, they can still do what they want to.”
“Just because you are different now, it doesn’t mean it defines you,” Jones continued. “These trips let you get out there and figure out what you can still do. I’m more active now than I was when I had my legs.”
Hoping for Family Trips
Jones works to ensure groups like TRR and Wounded Warriors Project can raise enough money to send entire families on adventure trips.
“It’s really important for families to see what Dad or Mom can do,” Jones said. “It’s easy for kids to think Mom or Dad can’t do things because they’re injured. But through trips like these they can see that Dad or Mom can actually kick their butts in some things still.”
First Time In Paradise
Peter Rooney is no slouch when it comes to adventure sports either. While still a patient at Walter Reed, the Army veteran who served in Iraq participated in the Extremity Games, the disabled version of the X Games.
“I was doing wakeboarding and there was kayaking there too, so I tried it,” said Rooney, whose wife Susan was also on the trip. “I started doing races back and forth in the pool and they said I had a short stroke and was good at it so I kept up at the therapy pool at Walter Reed.”
“I signed up for this trip as soon as I heard about it,” Rooney continued. “It’s paradise. It’s just what I imagined with all the palm trees and everything.”
Trips like TRR’s to St. John give wounded veterans a chance to reunite with fellow veterans after they return to civilian lives, explained Pannell, whose wife Danielle accompanied the group.
“When you get out of the hospital you’re not around these guys anymore,” Pannell said. “You go home to your town and although you might not be the only amputee there, the others stay behind closed doors mainly. So it’s nice to be around these guys again.”
Sharing and Teaching
“It’s good to get together with these guys and compare notes,” added Pannell. “We also get a chance to help the younger guys out and show them what we can still do.”
The trip offered Scott Morgan, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, a chance to get active again.
“I’m pretty much cooped up at home so this was a chance for me to get out and do something,” said Morgan, whose wife is a fourth grade teacher and couldn’t join him on the adventure. “We have a six-year-old daughter and I’m taking on-line classes so I’m inside a lot and can’t exercise like I used to. This is the first time I’ve kayaked and I really like it — it’s definitely something I’m going to keep up with at home.”
Bill Johnston of Pittsburgh, PA, who served with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam has been kayaking with TRR for years and the experience has helped him gain confidence in all areas of his life.
“I have a lot of fun with these guys and they are such great instructors they make it easy,” said Johnston. “Once you get out there and propel yourself you really feel like you can just do a lot more.”
A number of local groups helped make the TRR trip a well-rounded St. John experience.
St. John Administrator Leona Smith’s office helped facilitate transportation logistics; Crabby’s Watersports donated kayaks and snorkel gear for the veterans to use; Arawak Expeditions led the group on an adventure tour; American Legion Post #131 facilitated transportation and food donations; Westin Resort and Villas and Starfish Market donated food; Skinny Legs hosted a luncheon; Maho Bay Camps provided a dinner; and Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen played an integral role as well.
For more information about TRR and Wounded Warriors Project and to make donations, check out the Web sites www.teamriverrunner.org and www.woundedwarriorproject.org.