Veterans Navigate Rapids After War Duty

As part of their physical and mental recovery, veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan raft down five miles of whitewater on the Potomac River near Harper's Ferry, W. Va. Emily Corio reports from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Soldiers who lived through the explosions of roadside bombs in Iraq may need months of treatment. For that they're often sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. One non-profit group is offering a way for these patients to get therapy outside of the hospital, on the nearby Potomac River. Team River Runners teaches kayaking near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Emily Corio of West Virginia Public Radio joined a group from Walter Reed this past weekend.

EMILY CORIO reporting:

A volunteer kayak instructor gives amateur paddlers some direction and encouragement as they push through the Potomac River.

UNKNOWN MALE: Raise it up! Looks good, looks good.

CORIO: The river is low but the level is just right for newcomers to the sport and these paddlers are dealing with more challenges then just trying to stay in their boat. Their also dealing with pain. Eva Diane Cochran has been a patient at Walter Reed for 15 months. She was injured in Afghanistan when the vehicle she was riding in rolled down a ravine. Today Cochran is paddling a kayak by herself and smiling widely.

Ms. EVA COCHRAN (Solider): Anytime you are on the river it's just so relaxing so you forget about everything else in the world except for the current underneath your boat and it's just a good day. Anytime you're on the river is a good day.

Ms. CORIO: Army Captain Daniel Gade started kayaking last year when he was recovering from multiple injuries at Walter Reed. Gade was in Iraq five months before he was hurt.

Captain DANIEL GADE (U.S. Army): I was a company commander and was out doing a civil affairs patrol, looking at schools and talking to local tribal leaders and things like that, and then the next thing I knew I woke up on my back in the ditch.

CORIO: The vehicle Gabe was traveling in hit a roadside bomb. Gade had a fractured skull, a broken neck, and ultimately, doctors had to amputate his right leg. He spent 10 months at Walter Reed where he joined the kayaking program, and he was back this weekend to show his support.

Capt. GADE: For a lot of guys it's very therapeutic for their minds and their bodies. I used to say for a lower limb amputee, once you strap the boat on it's a prosthetic for everybody. Everybody is equal on the water. For the most part that's true.

CORIO: Mike McCormick is one of the founders of Team River Runners. He's a former national white water kayak champion. He's never served in the military, but his job in the White House Press Office takes him to Walter Reed Hospital frequently. That's where he got the inspiration to start the kayaking program.

Mr. MIKE MCCORMICK (Founder, Team River Runners): Fun is a very powerful medicine. So we go in there and we just have a lot of fun, and create this sort of atmosphere where, suddenly you know - for an hour or two hours at night in the pool or three hours on the weekend in the river - you know we're out kayaking and it's a good time.

Ms. CORIO: This trip took paddlers down five miles of the Potomac River that forms the border between Maryland and West Virginia. It lasted a couple of hours and was followed by a cookout. Elijah Allan(ph) says the trip reassures him that he's healing. Allan is recovering from a suicide car bomb attack in Iraq. He's been at Walter Reed Hospital for 225 days.

Mr. ELIJAH ALLAN (Soldier): I grew up in southern Ohio. And being here in D.C., kind of stuck between the walls at Walter Reed and all the traffic, and just, I guess the D.C. mentality - It was nice to kind of get back and just enjoy some nice peaceful moments and just the things I'm not used to anymore.

CORIO: Elijah Allan hopes to be out of the hospital in two or three months and wants to return to Iraq as a Civil Affairs Specialist. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corio.

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