Wounded troops, veterans get kayak lessons

A point-blank gunshot robbed Navy veteran Elroy "Elwood" Day of his sight. But on Friday, he climbed into a bright blue kayak and took off down the Augusta Canal.

 

Mr. Day, 44, was part of a flotilla of more than 40 boats that cruised out onto the water with about a half-dozen wounded or disabled veterans. It was part of Augusta's push to become the latest community to join Team River Runner, which teaches injured and disabled veterans and active-duty military how to kayak.

The program began in August 2004 in Washington, D.C., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Longtime kayak instructor Joe Mornini was talking with a fellow kayaker one day about newspaper photos of war amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I said, 'You know we could outfit a boat for that.' And he said, 'You know, I had the same idea,' " Mr. Mornini said.

The program has spread to military and Veterans Affairs hospitals in San Antonio, Boston, Seattle and in California. Acquiring kayaks and getting into the program had been on a "wish list" for a couple of years at the Augusta Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers, said Doug Mitchell, a therapy manager for the Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit.

In the past couple of months, two donated and five loaner boats have allowed some in the unit to join in the weekly "kayak football" games on the canal, where participants in a boat toss around a floating football.

"One of the soldiers, this is what he looks forward to every week," said recreation therapist Eric Gary.

That will only expand with the Team River Runner program. Once they get their skill level up, the group would like to organize trips, such as whitewater rafting, said Mr. Mornini, the executive director. That can actually be therapeutic for them.

"They want the adventure and the adrenaline," he said. "The reason is because these are warriors. These guys came back from combat and they miss that."

Running whitewater rapids can resemble combat for some, he said.

"It's fast, there's a lot of uncertainty, you need to be highly skilled, your awareness is very keen, there's a sense of danger," Mr. Mornini said. "That gets the adrenaline pumping."

The kayaking could aid therapy for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who often have trouble admitting they have a problem, said Rebecca Jump, a clinical psychologist with the Medical College of Georgia.

"It's a great example of working through your fears and apprehensions and developing a sense of confidence and a sense of accomplishment," she said.

Friday's roughly two-hour trip down the canal could be considered relatively tame, except for what happened to Mr. Day, who despite his blindness was paddling the kayak himself under the close supervision of Mr. Mornini.

Mr. Day drifted into some branches and was leaning to get away from them when his kayak suddenly flipped over.

"They were panicking and I was in," Mr. Day said, grinning a little. "And then I was just like, 'Well, I'm just going to hold under here and try to chill and let them get me back over.' And they did."

"He's got a great attitude," Mr. Mornini said. "That was a very stressful thing and he sucked it up."

"I'm a survivor," Mr. Day joked.

And even though he was soaked, and he lost a pair of sunglasses he had for years, he was beaming.

"I am exhilarated," he said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

WANT TO GET INVOLVED?

To donate to the Augusta Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers for the Team River Runner program, or if you would like to volunteer, contact Kimberly Hoge at (706) 731-7208 or at kimberly.hoge@va.gov.