Team River Runner founder Joe Mornini, left, and a veteran get ready to head out on a kayak trip from Cinnamon Bay during the group’s St. John trip.
The pristine beaches and lush hillsides of St. John draw thousands of vacationers each year.
Yet none of those honeymooners or family vacationers likely enjoy the island’s warm waters and calm seas, as well as its peaceful tranquility and healing energy, more than a group of wounded veterans who stayed at Cinnamon Bay Campground recently.
The 14 veterans were part of the latest leadership program with Team River Runner, an adaptive kayak program founded at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center by Washington D.C. area paddler Joe Mornini.
Mornini, a recently retired special education teacher, launched the program with a few donated boats stored in his garage in 2004. Today Team River Runner has 40 chapters — mostly started and run by veterans — at VA hospitals across the country. The group is run largely by its hundreds of volunteers and only employs six part-time helpers and two full time staff members.
Team River Runner has been hosting a leadership trip to St. John for five of the past six years. For the past three 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 a popular annual fundraiser.
Participants in the leadership trip are recommended by their local chapters and spend a week learning more about Team River Runner while also forming important bonds and challenging themselves with daily kayak and snorkel excursions.
While former participants have included paraplegic and even quadriplegic veterans, this year’s Team River Runner group had wounds no less dire, yet unseen by the naked eye, explained John Schuld.
“This year we really want to emphasise the invisible wounds being suffered by our veterans,” said Schuld. “Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries comprise the largest segment of wounded veterans. These injuries can’t be seen, but they are there and they are taking a toll on our veterans.”
The incidence of PTSD in returning veterans is staggering. At least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD with many military counselors putting the real figure much higher, according to veteransandptsd.com.
The statistics linking PTSD and suicide are even graver.
“According to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health (Vol 102, Issue S 1, p.S21-S23, 2012), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, resulting in 33,000 fatalities,” according to the website. “Being in the military doubles your risk of suicide. An estimated 5,000 veterans die by suicide each year.”
The issue is compounded by preconceived notions about mental disorders and depression as well as years of denial and misdiagnosis. This year’s Team River Runner’s group included veterans ranging in age from 25 to 51 and hailing from Oregon to Virginia, yet they all shared one thing; PTSD and/or TBI.
All of the veterans were recommended by their chapters as potential leaders who could return and start new chapters or take leadership roles in their local groups.
Sergeant. Major Tom G. grew up on the New Jersey shore and was drawn to Team River Runner due to his love of anything on the water. A HALO veteran with more than 2,000 dives under his belt, he was drawn to the physicality of kayak, but also to the chance to help fellow veterans, he explained.
“I had a career for over 30 years that most people would consider adventurous,” he said. “And now I have 32 years of experience and I have a lot to share with the younger guys.
Some people have aspirations to climb mountains, I wanted to work with people I knew about and who I knew needed help.”
Working with his local Team River Runner chapter in Alexandria, Virginia, allows Sgt. Major G. to engage wounded veterans to join the group’s kayak outings.
“I’ve been mentoring and coaching wounded veterans for years and this program puts it all together,” he said. “It’s way to reach some folks who you wouldn’t otherwise be able to help.”
Sgt. Major G. has seen first hand the impact Team River Runner can have on veterans who return wounded from war, he explained.
“You see these 20-year-olds, some with serious injuries who can’t do a lot of the things they could do before,” he said. “People don’t join the military because they’re couch potatoes.
When you are injured physically or emotionally, it can be really challenging to find the goodness in anything.”
“Kayak is so inclusive and adaptive, anyone can really do it,” said Sgt. Major G. “It allows them to become a part of society again. This program helps their self-esteem, their self-confidence and their self-pride.”
Sgt. Major G. is relocating to Savannah, Georgia, where he plans to start a new Team River Runner chapter.
“It’s about so much more than paddling,” he said. “It’s about mentoring and helping people who are struggling. It’s an opportunity to learn a sport and meet a bunch of people and make bonds through that sport.”
The group arrived on St. John on Sunday, November 3, and enjoyed a week filled with kayak and snorkel trips, meals at local restaurants and even entertainment at the campground. St. John homeowner author Homer Hickam screened the film “October Sky” based on his book “Rocket Boys.” A Vietnam War veteran, Hickam also led an open discussion with the group following the movie.
Sadie Sea Charters helped transport the veterans to and from Red Hook. Ocean Grill, Barefoot Cowboy Lounge, Castaways, Skinny Legs and Across the Street Bar hosted the group for dinner on different evening either at their establishments or at Cinnamon Bay Campground. St. John Brewers hosted a beer and root beer tasting.
Crabby Watersports, Arawak Adventures and Cinnamon Bay Watersports donated kayak equipment and hosted paddles for the group.
The trip is funded by in-kind donations and the revenue generated from the annual Chaotic Kayak Race hosted at Oppenheimer Beach each July.
“It was really great to see this community support,” said another veteran with Team River Runner who asked to not be named. “This makes you realize that there is a lot of support for us, which you don’t see a lot of.”
What started in 2004 with a only four donated boats, has grown to a nation-spanning organization which saw 1,500 wounded veterans in kayaks, according to Mornini.
“We started this with a desire to do something and a budget of zero,” said Mornini. “With our first donation we bought a few kayaks last year alone and got some guys into the pool at Walter Reed. Last year we had 1,500 buts in boats.”
While that is impressive growth, Mornini has an even bigger plan.
“Our goal is to have 15,000 wounded veterans take part in adaptive kayak,” said Mornini. “We’ll get there.”
For more information about Team River Runner or to make a donation check out www.teamriverrunner.org.