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Do we forget?

Published August 02. 2010 09:30AM

Tom Rhiel and Carol Ann Bowyer love to kayak. They enjoy being in the outdoors and on the water. Tom and Carol work for mEnterprise Solutions. It was Tom who heard about an organization called Team River Runner (TRR) and believed this was what he was looking fora way to give back to a very special group of peopleour veterans. He got Carol to become a volunteer also.

They visited my Rotary Club meeting to tell us about TRR.

Team River Runner is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization that offers a healthy, healing and challenging experience through whitewater boating and other paddling sports to veterans, especially for those who seem lost due to injury.

When our veterans come back wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, they're fighting to rehabilitate their bodies and their lives.

In 2004, the cofounders were sitting by the Potomac River one day wondering how they could combine their love of the sport of kayaking and whitewater boating with helping wounded veterans.

They found a group of volunteers to go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and try to interest some of the patients into learning how to kayak. They took them to the Center's swimming pool to practice. In the hallways, volunteers customized boats to meet the needs of amputees and para and quadriplegics, then took them on the Potomac.

Since then, it has become a national organization with over 20 sites, near military posts.

TRR sponsors and pays for veterans to take trips down white water rivers and ocean kayaking.

Tom has been teaching kayaking for 30 years and finds vets are the easiest to instruct. "Tell a vet and he does it because he's use to taking orders."

He says one of the things he notices about the vets is the anger they have. "They think, 'How could this happen to me?' We teach them to play on the river. It really seems to help."

TRR spends about $350,000 a year. All the money comes from donations, sponsors and grants. The vet pays nothing. The program encourages family members to participate also.

"Some of the injured vets become reliant on drinking and drugs. We're trying to help them find a healthier lifestyle," says Tom.

The benefits of TRR have as much to do with creating a social network and support system as they do with learning water sports skills that provide an exciting adventure lifestyle that suddenly seemed lost due to injury.

One of the kayakers on a Colorado trip was Corporal Derrick Harden. He lost his right leg below the knee. His left leg is still scarred from an explosion that blew him through a wall. He said that when he is in a kayak, he is like everyone else who has legs and arms. Which is very important to these vets.

There were two things Tom said that really had an impact on me.

"There is a group of people in our country that are bearing the brunt of this war we're in and they're hurtingour military men and women."

Wow. It was like his words hit me on the side of the head with a two-by-four! Sure. I watch the news. I read the stories. But it's been going on for so long, I think I've become immune to what's happening across the sea. I don't have a son, husband, nephew or someone dear to me in the service so it's not in my face.

I still live in a nice safe house. There are no bombs exploding around me. I don't wake up or go to bed hearing gunfire. I'm not fearing for my life. If I'm hot, I float around at my leisure in my backyard swimming pool or go sit in my air-conditioned house where I can read, watch TV, enjoy a nice quiet dinner. There's a war on that my country is fighting, but, I'm not fighting. I'm letting someone else risk his or her life so I can continue to enjoy my nice safe existence.

Here's the other thing he said that really struck a chord.

"Wound a vet, you wound his/her family."

It's not bad enough that we send to fight this war married men and women with a spouse and children at home, taking away an income that keeps the family afloat, but also depriving those families of emotional security.

What happens when these men and women come home minus a leg/legs, an arm/arms, with physical injuries so severe that they will never walk again, be able to lift their children in their arms or maybe never work again? And there are those who suffer severe mental issues as well. Of course these things have to directly affect the vet's entire family in an emotional and financial way.

Tom and Carol have found a way to give back. To help.

I don't kayak and can't help a vet that way.

But I do have an extra dollar or two that I can donate to an organization like Team River Runner and Operation: Touch of Home, a local organization that sends care packages to our military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tom made me understand, again, that freedom isn't free. Someone has to pay the price. Someone has to sacrifice. Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes it takes someone like Tom to help me remember.

If you are interested in learning more about TRR or want to become avolunteer, contact Tomat (303) 885-4400 or Carol at (570) 977-0872 or visit

Operation: Touch of Home, (570) 977-1724 or

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