Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tennessee disabled vets recover with kayak therapy

From The Tennessean. In the picture, Kevin Myers, one of a group of veterans learning to kayak for therapy, tries to stay up in a Team River Runner class.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn.— U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph Meadows darts his kayak across water with alternating strokes of a double-bladed paddle, despite having five metal anchors in one shoulder and three in the other.

Having learned to maneuver the kayak in a swimming pool, he’s ready to take on a river. It’s a new challenge for a man who is leaving the military after a 20-year career that began when he was fresh out of high school. Multiple surgeries could not fix all the damage from a Baghdad building collapsing on him.

“I’m not going to be 100 percent,” he said. “But I’m trying for 90 percent.”

Meadows is one of the wounded warriors about to finish Team River Runner training, a program sponsored by Fort Campbell and VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System to help injured soldiers make the transition from combat missions to civilian life. The thrill of a whitewater trip will give them the adrenaline rush they’ve been craving.

Pingpong tables and bingo games may have worked fine for the aging veterans of yesterday’s wars, but today’s soldiers coming home with fresh wounds need more than that. Team River Runner helps them regain confidence and fill the adrenaline void before something bad does. Alcohol abuse, suicide, domestic violence and risky behavior, such as motorcycle accidents, are problems for wounded veterans.

“A lot of that is based on their injury and their inability to cope with everything that has happened,” said Jen Fischer, a recreation therapist at Fort Campbell.

The six-week kayaking course will culminate this month when the soldiers take a weekend trip to the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, where they will go down either the Hiwassee or the Nantahala River.

Gary Nolte, who served with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, helps other veterans learn to kayak.

“I got into the program I guess in 2007,” he said. “I weighed about 120 pounds. I suffered a traumatic head injury which left me partially blind and a severe spinal injury so I couldn’t do much. I was at 120 pounds when my average normal weight is about 200 pounds.”

Today, he is back to his normal weight and has regained almost his full range of movement despite having lost the sensation in one leg. And he doesn’t let the vision problem slow him down.

“I just don’t think about it anymore,” Nolte said. “I’m no longer disabled. I’m enabled.”

Popularity growsWith this year marking a decade of the nation being at war, the number of younger veterans continues to grow. The VA hospitals in Nashville and Murfreesboro now serve about 13,800 veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, who account for 16 percent of all patients.

Tennessee Valley launched Team River Runner in Nashville, then moved the operation to Clarksville and joined up with Fort Campbell to be more convenient for the returning veterans.

Team River Runner originated in Washington, D.C., in August 2004 when kayakers began teaching the sport to amputees and other wounded military personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. That initiative evolved into a nonprofit organization that promotes the activity for veterans nationwide.

Sean Podrecca, the leader of the kayak training program at Clarksville, encourages the soldiers who have completed the program to stay active by joining up with other groups, such as the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association.

Only six soldiers signed up this spring for the first course at Fort Campbell.

“It probably took a good 15 minutes to coax them into the water,” Podrecca said.

The first day, they had to learn a “sink or swim” maneuver, how to get out of a kayak when it’s flipped upside down — what’s known as a wet exit. The soldiers have progressed to doing rollovers, which entail bringing the vessel right side up while submerged.

They’re having fun and telling their buddies. Twenty have signed up for the next course, which is limited to 10 participants.

Riding and fishingBesides the kayaking program, Fort Campbell also offers horseback riding and sports activities for wounded soldiers. The VA hospitals in Nashville are about to implement a fly-fishing course.

Tonia Hardyway heads the hospitals’ program for veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. She pointed out that a good portion of these returning soldiers are older veterans because they were career soldiers, on reserve duty or deployed while serving in a state National Guard.

Fly fishermen from Middle Tennessee have signed up to teach the veterans the magic of dancing their lines over the water to entice the trout to jump. This initiative, which is run by Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Inc., also originated in Washington.

“What we need is the veterans to participate right now,” Hardyway said. “We have a lot of support. We are ready to take it off the ground, running one at the Murfreesboro site and one at the Nashville site.”

The VA treats veterans for war-related injuries but then guides them toward complete recovery and employment.

“There’s a high prevalence of musculoskeletal issues,” Hardyway said. “Also, we have quite a few veterans who are dealing with readjustment issues related to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. … We also have a higher number of veterans in the Tennessee Valley, in particular, that are diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.”

Kayaking is a skill that Meadows will be able to use for more than recreation. He plans to go to college and get a degree in forestry with a minor in conservation.

“I’m getting the range of motions back I wanted,” he said. “You also have the social aspect of we’re not being shut-ins. We can go out and interact with other soldiers. A lot of the soldiers have the same issues, but we tend to isolate ourselves when we are broken.”