United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Leading the Way with "Team River Runner"
Veteran Keith Deutsch lifts his kayak onto the van after a day on the Colorado River. Photo courtesy of Hyon Smith.
Veteran Keith Deutsch lifts his kayak onto the van after a day on the Colorado River. Photo courtesy of Hyon Smith.

With the rush of the rapids and spray of cool river water on his face, Robert Wake hadn't had this much fun in years. In fact, his Colorado kayaking trip last June was the first thrilling adventure he'd experienced since he was injured in Iraq five years ago.

Wake is one of many Veterans across the country participating in Team River Runner (TRR), an organization that uses kayaking and other paddle sports as physical therapy for wounded Veterans. Paddling sports allow recovering Vets the opportunity to get out of the hospital and replace the adrenaline of combat with the adrenaline of water sports. The volunteer organization provides outdoor activities ranging from white water rafting to wilderness fishing trips, catering to the desires of participants and their type of injury.

"We can adapt to any disability-including quadriplegics," states Joe Mirnini, executive director of Team River Runner.

A new opportunity for Veterans is a TRR training program where top paddlers from around the country are invited to attend a leadership clinic in Colorado or Montana to learn leadership tools for paddling trips in their local chapters.

"It's often the first vocational role they've had since disability," says Mirnini. "The course prepares Veterans to be certified with the American Canoe Association."

Robert Wake, whose kayaking experience was limited to a swimming pool at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, was asked to join both leadership clinics this year. He headed out west and took his first plunge into the river as a kayaker.

"It was an unbelievable experience-it's a difference between daylight and dark. When you're on the water it just feels like all of your cares take a back seat, and for me, the extremes of the river was something else," describes Wake.

Wake's recreational therapist, Jean Ferguson, attended the Colorado trip with him. Prior to the trip she taught him how to swim, then how to kayak. "Our goal is to help Veterans with skill development so it gives them a chance to get out in the water." She considers Team River Runner a valuable program that continues to grow. "It's a team bonding experience, like in the military where you depend on each other. If you flip over in your kayak, the others will help you out."

Ben Brown was selected for the Montana Training Clinic in July. Prior to the trip, he was an active member of Team River Runner in Lexington, KY for one year. Like Wake, Brown had not tried a recreational sport since his injury; he was thrilled to find a sport where his paralysis did not affect his performance.

Veterans, instructors, and their supporters at the Colorado Leadership Clinic. Photo courtesy of Hyon Smith.
Veterans, instructors, and their supporters at the Colorado Leadership Clinic. Photo courtesy of Hyon Smith.

"Personally, it's an opportunity to become active again in boating and on the water. The water for a paraplegic-just being in the water, you're at zero gravity. It's a totally safe sport. If you wipe out, you float in the water."

The TRR leadership program is geared to incorporate the skills that Veterans have learned in the military. The course covers planning, executing, and analyzing safety and technique while in the water. Recent clinics hosted 10 to 15 Veterans plus their family members and volunteers.

Both Brown and Wake plan to continue in leadership roles within their respective TRR chapters. Wake's goal is to start a chapter in his hometown in southeastern Missouri. Brown continues as an active participant of the Lexington chapter and takes biweekly trips to various kayaking spots. He is also an avid white water rafter, and recently competed in the National White Water Rafting Championship in Maryland.

By Megan Tyson, VA Staff Writer