Veterans, event organizers, volunteers — and even a service dog from Team River Runner — pose for a group photo at the famous Trunk Bay overlook.
CINNAMON BAY — Although the week’s weather threw a few wrenches in Team River Runner’s plans, the group’s 21 wounded veterans managed to enjoy kayak trips while forging bonds, cultivating leadership skills and soaking up the beauty of St. John.
TRR hosted its annual leadership program on St. John November 2 through 9, just when a spate of wet weather and rough seas hit the island. Despite less than perfect conditions, the veterans were still able to head out on kayak adventures, tour Annaberg Ruins and more during their week based at Cinnamon Bay Campground.
“We had some torrential rain and rough surf,” said John Schuld, who helped organized TRR’s St. John trip. “We’ve had to cut some of our kayak trips short. What we do then is fill in that time with some leadership courses back at camp.”
TRR is an adaptive kayak program founded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center by Washington D.C. area paddler Joe Mornini.
A retired special education teacher, Mornini launched the program with a few donated kayaks stored in his garage in 2004. Today TRR has 40 chapters — mostly started and run by veterans who met Mornini in the Water Reed pool — at VA hospitals across the country.
TRR has been hosting leadership trips to St. John for six of the past seven years. For the past four years, the trip has been organized by former St. John residents John and Brandi Schuld, who have also been able to make the trip self-sufficient thanks the popular Chaotic Kayak annual fundraiser.
Participants in these leadership trips are recommended by their local chapters and spend a week learning more about TRR while also building camaraderie and challenging themselves with kayak excursions and leadership courses.
This year’s participants, by no accident, ranged in age from 23 to 65, explained John Schuld.
“I intentionally do that,” he said. “For example, two years we had a Vietnam veteran who was a double amputee who walked all over Europe and got a job as a mailman for 20 years. Then we had two or three other veterans who were amputees who had just gotten out of Walter Reed.”
“The guys who just got out, the technology today for prosthetics is amazing,” said Schuld. “But the Vietnam vet had still done all of these things and they spent time talking about that. It makes you realize you can do it; you can still have a full life.”
Helping the Schulds organize and run the trip this year were fellow TRR veterans Shelton Gore from the Orlando, Florida chapter and Jon Deittle from the Virginia chapter. For Gore, who served as referee for this year’s St. John Chaotic Kayak fundraiser, TRR has changed his life, he explained.
“I was here with the organization last year and it was an amazing trip,” said Gore. “I’ve stayed active with TRR and work with a chapter back home. I was a new paddler then and it was this whole new challenge and environment.”
“I learned new skills and I learned that you can’t do two things at once,” he said. “You can’t paddle the kayak and still think about your PTSD. It gets you off the couch and out on the water with other veterans.”
Harvey Navanjo, an adaptive kayak specialist at Walter Reed and a veteran himself, has seen first hand the positive effect TRR has had on veterans.
“I started seeing TRR guys at the pool and I loved what they were doing,” said Navanjo. “I’m impressed by the phenomenal leadership they show and share with the veterans. The program harnesses their spirit and competitive drive and applies it to sport.”
“It’s really an extension of their therapy,” he said. “You can only do so much in the therapy center and then you have to go out in real life.”
Navanjo has seen veterans recover from deep depression thanks to programs like TRR, he explained.
“I see the lowest of low,” said Navanjo. “But I am also blessed to see what the outcomes are if we dedicate our energy to their healing like TRR does. The program also allows veterans to spend time together.”
“They all have something in common so that wall of newness gets broken down easily,” said the adaptive sports specialist.
Another part of what makes TRR have such an impact is its community support, and especially the support of St. John which enables the annual leadership retreat, Navanjo added.
“TRR is great and is run by a great group of people who know what they’re doing,” said Navanjo. “But this is also about community. It is the St. John community that made this trip happen.”
“At the end of the day all of these veterans will go back to their communities and they need that support too,” he said. “I want to thank the people of St. John for what they’re doing for the men and women in the military. This is an example of what communities can do.”
In addition to kayak trips along the North Shore, TRR participants also enjoyed dinners and activities back at camp and across the island at a number of restaurants. Members of American Legion Viggo E. Sewer Post #131, the Auxiliary and local AARP chapter gathered with community members to host a pot luck picnic for the group at the Coral Bay Agriculture Station on November 1.
For more information about Team River Runner or to make a donation to the organization, check out www.teamriverrunner.org.