Wounded Warriors Take to Love City’s Waters

After laying their lives on the line, 13 wounded veterans enjoyed a much-deserved week of fun in the sun on Love City last week.

But this group of men and women — many of whom lost limbs during their tours of duty — didn’t just lounge on the beach every day.


After learning the basics of kayaking stateside, the group of veterans came to St. John with Team River Runner, a non-profit organization dedicated to healing vets through paddle sports.


Launched by Joe Mornini in 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., Team River Runner has grown into a national presence with volunteers training veterans at 21 military hospitals  across the country.

“It’s all about health and healing through kayaking and for people with mobility issues, there is adaptive equipment so they can get out there and do this,” said Mornini. “We heal a wounded warrior one at a time and try to reach an individual. Then we get them involved with the leadership of the group by being on our volunteer leadership staff.”

“From education, outreach, media — they do it all,” said Mornini. “It makes much more sense if they’re doing it because it gives a sense of ownership.”

Team River Runner first visited Love City two years ago but had to cancel last year’s trip. This time around, however, the 13 veterans along with family members, friends and volunteers, enjoyed a full week of activities and events.

“The philosophy is that when you wound a warrior you wound a family,” said Gary Clarke, a volunteer with Team River Runner and V.I. Adaptive Kayaking and Camping Experience. “So when we bring veterans down on trips, we encourage them to bring their families or friends. It makes the experience just that much more special.”

From the minute the group landed on Sunday, November 1, until their departure on Sunday, November 8, they enjoyed the sea, the beaches and each other’s company.

“We got in on Sunday and we came out here to Cinnamon Bay Campground and immediately got everyone in the water,” said Clarke. “There were no complaints though.”

“A  lot of the guys are just meeting, and they’ve been having a lot of fun getting to know each other,” said Dana Alexander, administrative coordinator for Team River Runner.

Cinnamon Bay Campground was the perfect base for these active visitors who took full advantage of the use of kayaks from Crabby’s Watersports and Cinnamon Bay Watersports.

“On our first day we kayaked over to Mary’s Point and just kind of got everyone used to things,” said Mornini. “Then on the second day, we went back out there and this time we snorkeled. It was incredible.”

The group was treated to a sail aboard the catamaran Calypso and a pig roast at Cinnamon Bay Campground hosted by American Legion Post #131 on Wednesday, November 4.

“We sailed over to Lovango and then went snorkeling right off Calypso,” said Dana. “We saw turtles and eels and tons of fish — it was amazing. Everyone had a great time.”

During their trip, the group also enjoyed dinner at Skinny Legs, Maho Bay and Cinnamon Bay Campground, lunch at Woody’s and a Veterans’ Ball at Caneel Bay Resort.

While Team River Runner is resolute about the mental and physical benefits of kayaking and watersports, group members also had some serious fun during their St. John trip.

“My favorite part was learning  how to snorkel,” said Tara Hutchinson, an Army veteran who lost her leg in Iraq in 2006. “I thought I was going to be scared to death. The first day I tried, my snorkel gear didn’t fit right and it wasn’t so much fun, but then I got different equipment and it was like heaven”

“I saw two rays and a barracuda,” said Hutchinson. “This is probably the best time I’ve ever had in my life.”

Paddling out to Mary’s Point last week was William Santos’ first taste of ocean kayaking.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but I was able to use my prosthetic arm to kayak and it was great,” said Santos, who lost his arm serving with the First Calvary Division in Iraq. “The weather, the snorkeling, the kayaking, everything has been great. And I’ve really been getting some work outs.”

Like many other visitors, John Gierke relished the time to “unplug” from his hectic life back in Indiana.

“This is my first time here and it’s just been awesome,” said Gierke. “I love being away from everything — no cell phones, no email — just the blue water. It’s great”

Sean Lewis had as much fun getting to know the other veterans on the trip as he did spending time on the water.
“I am having a great time,” said Lewis, who lost his leg during a tour of duty with the Army in Iraq. “I love everything — snorkeling and kayaking. But it’s been really fun getting to hang with everyone else.”

For Pete Rooney and his wife Susan, this marked their second trip to St. John with Team River Runners and the couple was having a great time.

“We were here two years ago and when Joe called to see if we wanted to come back, I said, ‘tell me the time, I’ll be there,’” said Pete Rooney. “The weather, the snorkeling, the beaches — there is nothing like it.”

The kayaking also keeps Rooney in shape for his other passion — hand cycling. Rooney, who lost both legs during tours of duty in Iraq with the Army, recently completed a hand cycle marathon in New York City.

“Kayaking is great cross training for hand cycling,” he said.

Surrounded by beaming faces, it’s not difficult to imagine what keeps Mornini dedicated to expanding Team River Runners.

“When you see the potential in these guys and girls and then when you see the healing, it makes me misty just talking about it,” said Mornini. “It’s life-changing for people. I know wounded veterans who went through the program who are now enrolled in college to become physical therapists for other vets.”

For more information about Team River Runner, or to make a donation to ensure the group’s continued success, check out the website www.teamriverrunner.org.