Injured Veterans Tackle New Adventure

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands, Oct. 29, 2007 - Seven injured veterans geared up to pit themselves against sand and the Caribbean Sea on Oct. 18 as part of an inaugural adaptive adventure trip.

Before the veterans and their wives had a chance to test any of those boundaries, however, they had visitors to greet.

Members of the St. John American Legion and its auxiliary, which had met the group at the ferry the night before, arrived bright and early with nothing short of a full breakfast. The gesture, which included a certificate of appreciation and a lifetime membership to the American Legion, awed the veterans.

As the Legionnaires left the campground, so did the veterans. They headed to the beach to learn the sport of sea kayaking adapted to their individual situations.

"I hope that they're having an opportunity to have an adventure and push their barriers and boundaries a little bit," said Joe Mornini, director of Team River Runner. "These guys, they're just going to appreciate more what they do under their own steam."

Being in paradise doesn't negate all frustrations, however.

The veterans found that slicing through two-plus miles of turquoise waters in "sit-on-top" kayaks was a piece of cake. That was only after they'd negotiated the sandy beach to get to the boats, however.

For those with prosthetic legs, that challenge was minor. Former Marine John Jones, who lost both legs below the knee when the Stryker vehicle he was riding in hit a double-stacked anti-tank mine near Qaim, Iraq, nature caused him no problems.

"The sand, no, it wasn't anything really," Jones said. "The only thing that really screwed me up was not having (full use of) my leg that broke on me."

Army Sgt. Peter Rooney agreed that sand posed more problems for those using wheelchairs than actually getting the boat to glide through the water.

When the veterans returned from a paddle around nearby Whistling Cay, a small island, they graduated to sea kayaks, which have a cockpit. That cockpit allows a kayaker to sit below the surface of the boat.

Arawak Expeditions, a local company specializing in sea kayak adventures, provided instruction in both types of boats, including how to get out of, and back into, a sea kayak should it flip in open water. That was a lesson some of the veterans who have worked with Team River Runner in the therapy pool at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are very familiar with.

That wasn't necessarily so for the spouses, some of whom found the exercise a little more difficult than promised.

"They said that was easy!" said Danielle Pannell, wife of former Army Sgt. Kevin Pannell, who lost both of his legs above the knee when an insurgent threw a grenade at his foot patrol in Sadr City, Iraq. "It wasn't. It was hard!"

The day ended on a much more pleasant note, as the group set out on its first snorkel of the trip in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. The fish stories included sightings of a barracuda, a large tarpon, and the wing of a long-ago crashed plane.

Team River Runner is a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, a supporter of "America Supports You," a Defense Department program connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.

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