Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Therapy for PTSD in a Kayak

Vets are learning confidence and trust again on the river.

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           “Nationally, the VA is getting a very bad rap – and deservedly – but the Durham (N.C.) VA Center saved my life,” says Toni Taylor.

           That’s where Taylor saw a poster of other vets out kayaking as part of the Team River Runner program. At that time, she was fairly depressed, feared leaving her home, and suffered both from PTSD and TBI.            “On the poster, it looked like they were having so much fun,” she told me recently. “I didn’t swim, so I enrolled in both Team River Runner and swimming classes at the same time.”           Since then, Taylor has seen people in wheelchairs, without legs, and blind veterans successfully whitewater kayak and that gives her encouragement. "Having a broken back makes learning to roll my kayak back into an upright position tough, but just like with swimming, my great instructors are teaching me some workarounds so I'm sure that I'll get the hang of it soon.”            Being active with other vets was the best therapy she could have chosen, as she found out when she joined a group floating the Tuckasegee Gorge near Bryson, N.C. Its rapids were fast moving in some places, but only rated class 2-plus. Class 5 is considered dangerous and 6 life threatening.            “It was a wonderful experience,” Taylor says. “The safety boats were filled with really excited volunteers. Some of vets brought their children, which gave a real community sense. The safety boats make you feel safe and supported.            “It was a beautiful sunny ‘Carolina-blue’ sky day, but the water was mind-numbingly cold,” she says. “Thankfully, I’d had so much training (in the pool) that I was able to react without thinking when my boat rolled and I had to wet exit into the river with my wet suit on. I remember feeling extreme cold like I never felt before. Then my training kicked in, I was bow (boat) rescued, and I got back in the boat and continued on. So we went on down the river, laughing and joking.            “It was a huge sense of achievement, especially for someone like me with generalized anxiety,” Taylor says.            Taylor earned that anxiety the hard way. She joined the Army in 1989 and saw enough of the carnage of war while training medics in Honduras during their civil war that she came back with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress. Then she suffered a TBI in Korea, although the VA is still disputing that diagnosis.            “I was repelling down Cheju Do Mountain in 1990 when I fell and my belay didn’t catch me quickly enough,” she says. “I swung into the mountain face, broke my back, then swung out and back into the mountain and injured my brain.”            She was wearing a Kevlar helmet but it knocked her unconscious and left her dangling by a rope. “The DoD diagnosed me with TBI, but I’m still going through the process of getting diagnosed by the VA with TBI.”            Due to several bad experiences in the Army, she’s also uncomfortable around a lot of people.            But she’s finding that the best therapy involves staying active, and kayaking gives her a sense of physical fitness and mental peace.            “This translates off the river as well,” says Taylor. “Now I have this circle of river people I can call to say that I’m having a bad time of it and can really use some support. I normally have high standards and a zest for life. But I also know that there are days when life just seems overwhelming. That’s when it’s invaluable to have a circle of friends to call for help.”            Team River Runner is a national non-profit organization with more than 40 chapters in many states.  It was established in 2004 by kayakers in the Washington, D.C., area to help active-duty military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.            “Wounded service members endure many months of surgeries, physical and readjustment therapy, prosthetic fittings and other life challenges,” explains TRR’s Web site. “Against this backdrop, those who are able will welcome a chance to pick up a new challenge, and get out of the daily routine of their treatment for a day. They are attracted to whitewater and adventure kayaking because it offers an exciting way to improve their health, strength and connection with nature.”            TRR has 10 employees, but remains primarily a volunteer organization supported by grants and by corporate and individual donations, according to its CEO and founder Joe Mornini.            That’s pretty much true in North Carolina, says Dana Lapple, who founded the chapter in Raleigh in 2010.            “When we started our chapter, the national organization provided a small number of boats and gear,” Lapple says. “Then chapters are cut loose to raise all our own funds. We did a couple of small fundraisers, but typically have had more success encouraging people to donate their own boats and gear when they buy new stuff.”            Still, there’s no charge for vets and their families.             “We like to include the family as much as possible,” says Lapple. “It gives the spouses something to do with the vet so they have a joint activity together.”            All the individual chapters are completely volunteer, she adds. “Primarily these are just people who like to kayak and help others. There’s a mix of volunteers, but most haven’t had any connection to the military.”            Still, they’re the true heroes to Tony Gonzales, who served with the 82nd Airborne from 1999 through 2004 and was deployed to Afghanistan early in the third wave of troops.            I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie so kayaking interested me,” he told me recently. “So I joined and found the vets were wonderful and the volunteers awesome. When you’re caring for your buddy and your buddy is caring for you, it’s an incredible connection.”            Sometimes, it can also be a life-saving connection.            “My first day, we went down a class 2-plus rapid river. We pulled into an eddy where the guys were briefing me. As we studied it and talked about it, I unbuckled my helmet. When we’re about to head forward, one of the volunteers told me to buckle my helmet. I almost made it through the rapid, but I flipped and then my helmet struck a rock right on center.            “If those volunteers hadn’t told me to buckle my helmet back up, I’d have had my brains scattered all down that river,” he adds. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all that those volunteers have done for me. Some of them have become great friends, almost brothers.”            Like Taylor, that translates even off the river.            “Sometimes we just chat and hang out,” Gonzales says. “It’s no longer a part of the program, but it’s building friendships. It’s helped me to reconnect with myself and understand my challenges.            “The hardest thing that happened to me was that I wasn’t trained for it. I had submerged myself in the military world all of my life, but I wasn’t prepared for losing my best friend. Now I have to carry that with me, and it separates me from everyone else.            “So this has helped me blend in, have a little more freedom to speak to people,” he adds. “Often I want to crawl into a little dark corner and not come out again, but this program has helped me come out of that shell.”

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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