By Samantha L. QuigleyNovember 9, 2007
ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands (AFPS, Nov. 9, 2007) - Five days after their adventure began, seven injured veterans packed up with the satisfaction of knowing they'd done what they set out to do: conquer sand, sea and the cloud of mosquitoes that seemed to follow them everywhere.
Their adaptive-sports adventure in the Virgin Islands was organized by the nonprofit group Team River Runner. Team River Runner is a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, a supporter of America Supports You, a Defense Department program that connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their Families serving at home and abroad.
"I'm glad to get the opportunity, ... because this is stuff that just doesn't happen on a normal basis," said Scott Morgan, a former Soldier whose legs were severely damaged in a mortar attack Feb. 18, 2004, in Taji, Iraq. "It's pretty awesome. It makes me want to go home and start pursuing some of this stuff just so I can get out on the open water."
Kevin Pannell, a former Soldier who lost both legs, one above and one below the knee, when a hand grenade exploded during a foot patrol in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, agrees. He said trips like the adaptive paddling trip Mr. Pannell and six other wounded warriors went on are a great benefit for servicemembers dealing with life after a catastrophic injury.
"There's a real isolation whenever you get home," Mr. Pannell said, explaining that he thinks he is the only person in his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., whose amputation is the result of combat. "(The trip) is great. You compare notes and find out about new stuff."
The trip had some simpler benefits, as well. Aside from being a safe way to test some boundaries and talk to others who face the same situations, it was a chance to get away from the daily grind and relax. For most of the participants, it provided new experiences, as well.
"I've never snorkeled, but I've done a little bit of kayaking," Mr. Pannell said, adding that "hands down" snorkeling was his favorite part of the trip. "I saw like a five-foot barracuda."
The fish startled Mr. Pannell, who said he wasn't scared, just curious what the fish, famous for its own curiosity, would think of his prosthetic legs. "They're attracted to shiny things, and I have all the little screws and twinkles on my legs," he said. "I didn't know how into that he was going to be.
"I guess if he attacked my legs it'd be all right," Mr. Pannell said with a chuckle.
The troops' spouses may not have been as flippant about being so near a barracuda, but they all agreed the trip was better than anything the doctor could have ordered.
"The water is absolutely beautiful," Amber Jones said. "I have never in my life seen water this clear. Even in Hawaii, which I've always considered the best of the best, ... the water doesn't even compare."
Mrs. Amber's husband, former Marine John Jones, lost both his legs below the knee on Jan. 3, 2005, when the vehicle he was riding in hit a double-stacked land mine in Qaim, Iraq.
Danielle Pannell, Kevin's wife, said the trip offered the spouses almost as much benefit as it did the veterans. "It's just neat getting to see that I'm not the only one that gets frustrated sometimes," she said. "For so long I was like, 'It's just me.' But I got to talk to (the wife of another veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder), and we were sharing stories, and I was like, 'My husband does that!'"
As the trip all-too-quickly came to an end, Joe Mornini, Team River Runner's director and the trip's organizer, contemplated the recent events and looked forward to making the next trip even better.
"I can't believe that I'm sitting here in the Virgin Islands with all these people," Mr. Mornini said. "We've accomplished some great snorkeling. We've (paddled) to the British Virgin Islands, and we've got seven guys here that all of them are either amputees or mobility impaired.
"I just knew that if we did it right it would work, but I didn't know what right was," he added.
He may still not know exactly what "right" is, but he's relying on feedback from the group to get him closer for the next trip. "I'm really going to feel better about this trip after I hear from people after it's over," Mr. Mornini said.
While challenges cropped up -- sand and broken prosthetics topping the list -- and Mr. Mornini took notes on lessons learned, the trip seemed to come off exactly as he envisioned it. It allowed wounded warriors to push boundaries, learn some new skills and heal just a little more.
(Samantha L. Quigley works for American Forces Press Service)