Paddle sports help injured Fort Meade service members heal
May 24, 2012
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (May 24, 2012) -- Watching him in the water, the only noticeable feature of Ryan Major's kayaking is his solid stroke that sends him propelling through the pool and colliding into a wall.
Nearly six years ago, the medically retired sergeant had doubts that he would ever walk again, let alone pick up a new sport after one misstep in Iraq cost him both legs and multiple fingers on each hand.
Although Major still hasn't mastered walking with his prosthetic legs, he's becoming a master of the paddle as he pulls himself into a kayak whenever the opportunity arises.
On May 17, Major was among the several injured service members and veterans who gathered at Gaffney Fitness Center to learn paddle-boating skills as members of Team River Runner. The national organization's Fort Meade chapter has been operating since October, with the goal of helping injured service members heal through kayaking.
"We focus on providing health and healing through paddle sports -- that's our mission," said Jon Forte, the Fort Meade chapter coordinator.
Founded in 2001 in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit organization has more than 20 local chapters nationwide with the goal of "rehabilitating people with mental illness or physical disability or whatever problem they may have encountered during their service," Forte said.
Members routinely meet on the first and third Thursday of every month to train in Gaffney's indoor pool. They also take weekly outings to put their newfound skills to the test.
The program is open to service members and veterans who suffered an injury or disability during their service in the military.
Like Major, many participants have no background in kayaking but pick up skills with the help of volunteer instructors.
Major was encouraged to begin kayaking while recovering at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. While still hooked up to equipment in the hospital, members of Team River Runner visited Major and convinced him to get into the water as soon as he could.
"I was expecting to have a good time," he said of the first time he kayaked. "It's not really hard. It's fun."
Using a slightly modified kayak with inflatable pads up front to help him balance, Major now paddles with the group whenever they are in the water.
Some participants, however, are experienced kayakers and are looking to re-learn the sport.
"If they lost an arm or a leg, or [the injury is] benign, we provide them an outlet to get back into kayaking," Forte said.
While the program is focused on helping injured service members and veterans, Forte said Team River Runner invites family members to participate as well.
"We want it to be a family activity," he said. "A lot of times guys get back and they've lost that family bond. Kayaking restores that."
At the pool, service members are taught by experienced kayakers from local organizations including the Caton Kayak Club and the Chesapeake Paddlers Association.
Matt Gettier, a board member of the Caton Kayak Club, said members began volunteering with Team River Runner in October when the Fort Meade chapter was founded.
"I've only missed one session since I've starting coming," Gettier said. "It's so much fun."
The two-hour pool sessions are divided into two segments: instructional training and football.
During the first hour, kayakers first review the basics of the sport to help service members get comfortable in the boats.
"We do a lot of stuff," Gettier said. "We start off with just basic paddle strokes and getting them comfortable with the kayak, then we work through a progression of 'what ifs.' We teach them the motions first of what they need to know to roll the boat, then we put it all together."
The instructions lead to one goal: learning to roll the boat -- the ability to flip the boat without getting out.
"Once they have the roll, it's good to go and we can take them out to open water," Gettier said.
Brenda Rutledge, a physical therapist with Fort Meade's Warrior Transition Unit who focuses on adaptive reconditioning, said kayaking is among five sports that the WTU encourages for injured service members.
Kayaking provides a full-body workout that helps strengthen the core, arms and shoulders.
The sport, Rutledge said, can be very beneficial for those healing from injuries, especially since it requires improving balance, which ultimately helps speed up the recovery of muscle impairments.
"You're getting a lot of balance activity in here," she said. "When you hit that balance mechanism, that's when you're going to increase our recovery,"
After the instructional portion of the sessions, kayakers spend the final hour throwing a football around in the pool while still in their boats.
Gettier said he enjoys seeing the service members and veterans let loose in the pool and have a good time.
"I can't even describe it," he said "The stuff that they've been through and having the outlook of just being able to come out here, joke around and goof off and have fun for a couple hours is just awesome."
While Forte doesn't know how or why it happens, he said he's seen the program help wounded warriors overcome whatever challenges they face.
"They love it," he said. "I have no clinical explanation for it. But when I take somebody in a wheelchair or with PTSD or something's going on, they're not social, they're not talking. You wouldn't approach them, they could be aggressive.
"I take and put them in a boat and they just open right up," he said.