Wounded Vets Enjoy Health and Healing in St. John Waters

Team River Runner team leader and personnel liaison Pete Rooney gears up for a kayak trip out of Cinnamon Bay.

Most vacationers on St. John enjoy sailing, snorkeling and kayak trips, but for one group who visited the island last week, those experiences meant much more than a week’s get-away.

“As minor as it seems, just going out on a kayak trip, at the same time, it builds our confidence,” said Nicolette Maroulis, a Navy bomb dog handler who visited St. John with Team River Runner last week. “Each little success prepares us for the bigger steps. When you are wounded, it’s hard not to see yourself as broken and these activities are a huge help.”

“These little steps each add up and slowly help us to take bigger risks and take on bigger challenges,” Maroulis said.

“This is a huge part of our recovery — being able to get out and be physical,” said Juan Arredondo, who lost his hand after being hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Iraq. “It’s so quiet and peaceful out on the water.”

Juan Arredondo, above, wore a special attachment on his prosthetic hand — which he lost after being hit by an IED in Iraq — to better control a kayak paddle.

Maroulis and Arredondo were among a group of 25 veterans, family members and TRR staff who stayed at Cinnamon Bay Campground from October 31 through November 7, for a week of health and healing through kayak trips and other adventures.

TRR was launched by Joe Mornini in August 2004 to as a way to help veterans and active duty military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan who were recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Since then TRR has expanded to Department of Defense and Department of Veteran’s Affairs chapter sites across the country.

The group’s goal is simply to help heal wounded veterans and active duty service members through healthy adventures. Since most of the wounded warriors are adrenaline driven, kayak trips are an ideal sport offering both adventure and independence.

TRR hosts six national trips each year as well as the annual Virgin Islands trip. In addition to the sports activities, the group trips are also important for healing relationships — wives and family members are welcome on TRR trips — and camaraderie, explained Maroulis.

“It’s hard being around a lot of people who don’t know what you’re going through,” said Maroulis, who sustained traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “It’s important for us to come out and be around other people who get what we’re going through too. Plus it’s a great chance to throw out different ideas and discuss different treatments.”

Craig Chavez, above, wears his purple heart in his left eye socket since he lost that, and sustained severe injuries, after stepping on a remote detonated bomb.

Mark Moody — an Infantry officer with the National Guard who sustained traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord and lung damage when he was hit by and IED in Iraq — and his wife Rosalia, enjoyed the opportunity last week to get to know other wounded service members and spend some much needed time together.

“This is a really great group of people, from the leadership to the veterans,” said Moody. “Everyone here has become like a family. As much as the adventure, the best part of this trip has been the camaraderie.”

“It’s also been good for repairing our relationship,” he said. “It’s really hard at home when you’re dealing with these injuries, so being able to get away together has been huge.”

Also, the chance to get out on the water in a kayak or with a snorkel — for some veterans for the first time — is also just fun.
“I feel like a kid with Christmas coming,” said Mike Proscia, a 45-year-old sergeant who served 13 years with the Marine Corps before joining the Arizona National Guard.

Proscia was the lead vehicle in a convoy when he was hit by numerous IEDs in Iraq, topping out at three hits in the span of 36 hours. In addition to traumatic brain injuries, Proscia also sustained spinal cord damage and his left lung was paralyzed.

“It’s a little tough snorkeling with one lung since I can’t take my tank out on the water,” he said. “But the kayaking is great and I love to push myself. I plan to start a TRR chapter in Arizona when I get back.”

Craig Chavez shouldn’t even be able to walk, much less toss a football around on the beach like he was doing last week before heading out on a kayak with his wife Ariana.

Chavez was serving in the Army when he stepped on a remote detonated bomb in Iraq which threw him 15 feet in the air and 15 feet back and ripped a hole in the earth as big as a semi-truck tire.

“They said all I had left on me was one boot, my briefs and a strand of T-shirt — the rest was blown right off,” said Chavez, whose jaw was detached, face shattered and left eye blown off, among other injuries, from the blast.

The 30-year-old Army veteran wears his purple heart in his left eye socket, and is thankful that a quick thinking doctor reattached the retina in his right eye. After spending seven months in darkness, he was started seeing light and now enjoys peripheral vision.

He also suffered traumatic brain injury and extensive shrapnel injuries across his body. None of that, however, kept him from taking up Judo, and getting so good that he represented the U.S. in the recent Pan American games. The chance to spend a week with his wife, also an Army veteran, in the Caribbean was a dream come true.

“I love the kayaking here — it’s so peaceful and calming,” said Chavez. “Being together with just my wife and I is great. Since we have two little girls at home, we don’t get much time alone.”

This last trip to St. John was TRR’s third in four years, and the first time the entire trip was organized by veteran team leaders. Veterans Leif Lange, Pete Rooney and Sean Lewis, organized this St. John trip and will spearhead future trips to the island as well.

Back at camp in Cinnamon Bay Campground, the TRR group grew close and became like a family, according to TRR members on the V.I. kayak adventure.

The trio was able to secure a sailing trip on Calypso, meals from Woody’s Seafood Saloon, Skinny Legs and High Tide, kayak equipment from Cinnamon Bay Watersports and Crabby’s, as well transportation from Sadie Sea and VITRAN.

TRR works locally with the St. John American Legion Post #131 as well as the Virgin Islands Office of Veteran’s Affairs. The biggest difficulty the group faces is financial support. Their last trip cost $35,000 and put the group $10,000 in debt.

After making their first trip in 2006, the group was forced to cancel their 2007 trip because they couldn’t raise enough funds, explained Gary Clarke, TRR’s V.I. program coordinator.

“The second year, we just couldn’t raise the money,” said Clarke. “Joe had to call all of these guys and tell them we weren’t going. We said then that we we’d never do that again.”

Donations of air miles and money will help Clarke keep his word. Lange is planning a major fundraiser in the Florida Keys next Memorial Day and TRR accepts donations year-round for their programs.

To help ensure wounded veterans continue to be able to heal on St. John, donate to TRR’s Virgin Islands program at www.teamriverrunner.org, and click on the Virgin Islands sponsorship page.