Rollin' on the River:

Utah Guardmembers Help Wounded Warriors through Turbulent Water


By Master Sgt. Greg Rudl

National Guard Bureau


Published August 10, 2010


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Ashley Crandall, 2-211th Aviation, volunteers her time to help Team River Runner give wounded Warriors a whitewater kayak experience.

Photo by Master Sgt. Greg Rudl

Ashley Crandall, 2-211th Aviation, volunteers her time to help Team

River Runner give wounded Warriors a whitewater kayak experience.

ARLINGTON, Va. – With some trepidation, Douglass Rink rolls his kayak over and disappears under the water. He frees himself, emerges a short time later and assures his instructor, "I was a scuba diver before."

Escaping an overturned kayak takes skill and some nerve, and it’s made more difficult when you have a prosthetic leg. But that doesn’t bother Rink.

"It’s a blast," he said. "I never tried this when I had two good legs; now it’s even fun when I have only one."

Rink, a retired Air Force reservist, is not only learning how to kayak but realizing that his physical disability may not be as limiting as he thought.

And that’s the whole point behind Team River Runner, a nonprofit that helps wounded Warriors and Veterans rehabilitate and gain confidence through whitewater boating and other paddling sports.

"It’s nice to have folks that surround you who encourage you to try things you may not have thought about doing," said Rink.

On this May evening, just like they do every week in the warmer months, a group of about 20 of them met on the Potomac River, just downstream from Great Falls Park in Maryland, for some instruction and support.

Before being allowed out on the river, beginners like Rink learn the basics in the therapy pool at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Carderock Model Basin at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda.

Guiding them along the way are volunteers like Ashley Crandall.

Crandall was serving in Iraq last year as a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic with the Utah National Guard’s 2-211th Aviation, when she was wounded and medically evacuated. While recuperating at Walter Reed, she got involved with TRR and now she is instructing others.

After learning how to escape an overturned kayak, "beginners learn the three basic maneuvers: Eddie turns, ferries and peel-outs," said Crandall, who usually kayaks three times a week.

Instructor Ashley Crandall, center, poses with participants at a Team River Runner event on the Potomac River in Maryland.

Photo by Master Sgt. Greg Rudl

Instructor Ashley Crandall, center, poses with participants at

a Team River Runner event on the Potomac River in Maryland.

She said the advanced skill of rolling is especially important when you’ve capsized in whitewater.

"It’s a lot easier and safer for someone to roll up on their own, versus being rescued by someone else or swimming through whitewater… or frigid water," said Crandall, who demonstrated four or five different rolls with nose plugs in and a helmet on.

The kayaking therapy not only helps wounded warriors with physical disabilities, but mental ones too, said Dave Shanahan, a TRR group leader.

He said Servicemembers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Disorder typically have short attention spans and have a hard time focusing, and that’s where kayaking helps. Learning to paddle and roll and taking those skills to whitewater builds confidence, said Shanahan, adding "It’s great therapy."

TRR has as much to do with creating a social network and support system as it does with teaching water sports skills. That’s evident from the time the group unloads kayaks and assembles gear in the parking lot to their meeting for a beer afterward. The atmosphere is relaxed and supportive, peppered with joking, ribbing and a love for the sport.

The program counts on volunteers. Some come from near, and others, like Air Force Master Sgt. Mike Beal, came from Alaska. The deputy fire chief was accompanied by his son and wife, who is also a Servicemember working temporarily in Washington.

Kayaking gives Vets feedback on their balance, which also helps them when they are on dry land, said Beal. He plans to start a TRR group when he gets back to his unit, the 176th Wing at Kulis Air National Guard Base.

Another volunteer, Army Master Sgt. Doug Bernard, a Special Forces member from the Utah National Guard, said TRR combines his passions.

"I get to be outside and doing the things I like to do and share those skills with Soldiers who have never experienced them," said Bernard. "Through it all, you get to see the progression and watch people's eyes light up as they realize what they can do."

He had just come back from a trip to Morocco, where he had taught Soldiers there skiing and mountaineering skills through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program.

"I just feel really lucky to be involved with TRR, to know that these kinds of opportunities are out there to help and support all of us," he said.

During his stay in D.C., Bernard not only helped wounded Warriors in the water but on the pavement as well. He pedaled the Face of America Ride from D.C. to Gettysburg, Pa., helping about 65 wounded warriors with everything from flat tires to clicking in their prosthetic legs to bike pedals.

He also rode with other wounded warriors in the Ride 2 Recovery Memorial Challenge, a six-day, 350-mile ride from the Tomb of the Unknowns in Washington to Virginia Beach.