Injured soldiers turn to Great Falls Park in Maryland to renew their bodies, minds, and spirits, one paddle stroke at a time.
By Amy Leinbach Marquis
When you watch Rob Brown disappear around the river bend with the grace and speed of an Olympian, leaving every kayaker on the Potomac River in his wake, you wouldn’t know that a gunshot wound in Iraq left his leg permanently immobile. When Troy Crawford surfs a wave like an old pro in his compact yellow kayak, you might be surprised to learn that he spent a week in March 2006 in a coma after a bomb exploded behind him in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. And if you’d seen Brandon Huff paddle technical runs on a recent trip through Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, you never would have guessed that he lost a leg in Iraq during his tour of duty.
“When we’re in the boat, we’re just like everyone else,” Brown says.
But they’re not, exactly. Because you have to be a little braver than the average person to push your body to such extremes after it’s been through such trauma. And until these three were injured, they had never paddled a kayak before in their lives.
Every day at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center just outside Washington, D.C., wounded soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan ease into physical therapy to recover from their injuries. It’s meant to be healing time—but the down time in between sessions can drive a person mad.
“When you’re in Iraq, you don’t know what’s going to happen day-to-day,” Crawford says. “Your life is on the line, and things are happening so fast. Then you get home, and you’re just lying in a hospital bed. That rush isn’t there anymore.”
In 2004, Joe Mornini and Mike McCormick—two lifelong kayakers—had an idea to help remedy that. Why not share their love of kayaking with veterans? Get them in the water and teach them how to balance, paddle, and “roll” (a skill required to get upright if your kayak flips over). Rebuild their confidence. Help them reconnect with wilderness. Give them the adrenaline rush they live for. After all, you don’t need legs to paddle a boat—or even both arms, for that matter.
So Mornini and McCormick went to work collecting loaner boats and retrofitting paddles and bulkheads to be compatible with a variety of disabilities. They posted signs around the hospital and uploaded YouTube videos to the Web encouraging soldiers to get out of their beds and into the water. Walter Reed’s indoor pool came alive on Tuesday nights, with veterans practicing rolls under the careful watch of upbeat instructors, ready to duct-tape a prosthetic arm to a paddle if necessary. Eventually, the group got enough donations to purchase a van that could accommodate small group outings on the Potomac River in Great Falls Park, part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park that runs through Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. They called the program Team River Runner, and their kayaking family soon grew exponentially.
“I’m always surprised at how gung-ho these guys are,” says Mornini, the program’s director. “They just have no hesitation about trying adventurous things. They’re fearless, they do what we tell them to do, and they get very good, very fast. It’s remarkable to see someone as injured as some of these guys are jump in and start kayaking at a very high levels in a very short period of time.”
Perhaps no one matches that description more than Brown. He’s still dealing with the aftermath of a bullet that ripped through his hip and sciatic nerve—permanently robbing his right leg of any sensation or mobility, and forcing doctors to amputate it last fall. “But it doesn’t matter,” he says, “I’m still fast.” And it’s no wonder why: Brown kayaked almost daily from November 2007 through October 2008, pausing only to enjoy Thanksgiving. His goal is to race in the Olympics in 2012.
But the progress isn’t just physical—an evolution of character often takes place, too. Last July, in what Mornini calls the high point of his Team River Runner experience, he spent three weeks paddling through the Grand Canyon with Brown, Crawford, and Huff. “These guys did what they had to do to get down the canyon and help with camping—and it’s hard to move around with a prosthetic leg or a cane, but they never complained. They just did everything everybody else did. It was a wonderful experience to see that.”
When they reached Lava Falls, the longest whitewater run in the Grand Canyon, they paused to drop an object over the edge, just as so many kayakers had done before them to mark an important life shift. Mornini scattered a friend’s ashes. Brown, the Olympic hopeful, tossed in his last pack of cigarettes. Crawford, the coma patient, released his Purple Heart, marking the end of one chapter of his life and the beginning of a new one.