For some veter­ans, re­hab is a kayak on a rag­ing river

Maryland Independent - - News - By JESS NOCERA

WASH­ING­TON — Lon­nie Bed­well had just 14 days of white­wa­ter kayak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore he pad­dled the en­tire length of the Colorado River in 2013 — a 226-mile stretch through the Grand Canyon, home to some of the most dan­ger­ous rapids in the world.

Be­sides fac­ing the rag­ing waters, Bed­well had one other hur­dle: his blind­ness.

“The first time I got in a kayak I said aloud, ‘Crap this is dif­fi­cult,’ be­cause I [thought I] could never pad­dle a straight line, or keep my bal­ance,” said Bed­well, who lives in Dug­ger, Ind.

Bed­well found him­self in a kayak af­ter get­ting in­volved with Team River Run­ner (TRR) in 2012 at a Dis­abled Amer­i­can Veter­ans win­ter sports clinic in Snow­mass, Colo.

Five years later, Bed­well has taken on lead­er­ship po­si­tions within TRR, also be­com­ing the first blind per­son to kayak the Colorado River, cre­at­ing a whole new life jour­ney.

‘Butts in boats’

One can hear the phrase, ‘On me, on me,’ on rivers across the coun­try, in­clud­ing on the Po­tomac.

At first glance, it isn’t clear why one kayaker is yelling back to the one be­hind him or her, but this is a typ­i­cal ses­sion with TRR.

TRR was es­tab­lished in 2004 at the Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter, then in Wash­ing­ton (now the Wal­ter Reed Na­tional Mil­i­tary Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bethesda), by Joe Mornini and Mike McCormick.

In the sum­mer of 2004, Mornini and McCormick were pad­dling reg­u­larly on the Po­tomac River. Think­ing about the many sol­diers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan sparked an idea, said Mornini, a res­i­dent of Rockville and a re­tired public school teacher and pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion.

“Mike and I were talk­ing about some of the wounded ones who were com­ing back from the war who were miss­ing arms and legs,” Mornini said. “And so we were like, ‘Let’s put them in a kayak, we’ll teach them how to kayak.’”

And so the idea was born: to teach white­wa­ter kayak­ing to re­turn­ing wounded sol­diers at Wal­ter Reed.

Now 13 years later, there are more than 50 ac­tive chap­ters of TRR in 31 states. The white­wa­ter kayak­ing pro­gram now aims to help blind veter­ans and veter­ans suf­fer­ing from dis­abil­i­ties, brain trauma, PTSD, and more, to give them a chance at a new life.

“We have worked with close to 10,000 veter­ans in our his­tory and we want to work with 100,000,” Mornini said.

A state­ment fea­tured on the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s web­site says “our road to re­cov­ery is a river.”

When the pro­gram started, it was only fo­cused on the phys­i­cal heal­ing. But as time went on, those in­volved started see­ing that it had other ben­e­fits, as it pro­vided a means for veter­ans to face chal­lenges and cre­ate goals, said Dave Robey, TRR’s pro­gram di­rec­tor.

TRR “has evolved for veter­ans to have a sense of be­long­ing to some­thing, they are be­long­ing to a com­mu­nity of veter­ans who are like-minded and sim­i­lar,” Robey said. “Hope­fully it mo­ti­vates you [the veter­ans] to do other things in your life such as go­ing back to school, pur­su­ing pro­fes­sional as­pects of their lives, hav­ing chil­dren, be a good gen­eral cit­i­zen, to tran­si­tion on to a bet­ter life.”

Robey said that the kayak­ing cre­ates ca­ma­raderie and gets the veter­ans “off the couch and out­side.”

White­wa­ter kayak­ing is a niche sport that is prob­a­bly one of the best for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and phys­i­cal ther­apy, Mornini said.

“We didn’t know, but over the years we have dis­cov­ered that the things you do pad­dling are amaz­ingly phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and spir­i­tu­ally ther­a­peu­tic,” Mornini said.

Reach­ing out to the blind

TRR did not start out as­sist­ing blind veter­ans, how­ever. One year when Mornini was con­duct­ing a lead­er­ship clinic in Mon­tana, a blind pad­dler was in­vited to it.

Af­ter­wards Mornini and fel­low TRR guides thought, “that was pretty cool guid­ing a blind pad­dler — we didn’t know they could do that well.”

And so that side of the pro­gram, in­clud­ing blind veter­ans, was born.

The fol­low­ing year a clinic was cre­ated in Mon­tana with 10 vet­eran pad­dlers, five of whom were blind. The veter­ans with full eye­sight guided their blind com­pan­ions first on flat wa­ter and then moved into dif­fer­ent classes of white­wa­ter.

“We had no idea that it would be that suc­cess­ful, we were still learn­ing the tech­niques and what is nec­es­sary to safely guide and in­struct a blind pad­dler, and so we in­vented it out of thin air,” Mornini said.

“If you think about how many things can a blind per­son do on their own — in­de­pen­dently not much. But they can pad­dle a kayak all by them­selves. All you need is to have some­one clean up their lines and then they just pad­dle.”

One vet­eran came up with the name, Out­tasight Clinic, and now there are five of these clin­ics in the coun­try, but Mornini is hope­ful to have more.

This year TRR is start­ing a new group called the Out­tasight Vi­sion Team. The team will con­sist of eight of TRR’s top blind pad­dlers who have been in­volved over the years and trained to run big­ger and big­ger white­wa­ter rivers.

“At the end of the day it’s all about butts in boats,” Mornini said. “If you ask some­one what Joe Mornini cares about the most, it’s get­ting your butt in a boat.”

‘Com­pletely in the dark’

Bed­well, a for­mer Navy Petty Of­fi­cer 1st Class, ended ac­tive duty from the U.S. Navy on May 4, 1994, af­ter nine years. Three years later to the day, he lost his sight in a hunt­ing ac­ci­dent when his friend mis­tak­enly shot him.

“I re­mem­ber get­ting up from my belly and reach­ing for my eyes be­cause I sim­ply thought I had some­thing cov­er­ing my face and I was kind of puz­zled when I still couldn’t see,” Bed­well said. “I wiped them a se­cond time and it was then that I truly re­al­ized what had hap­pened, that I lost my eye­sight and I was com­pletely in the dark.”

In 2012, Bed­well at­tended his first Out­tasight Clinic in Emi­grant, Mont.

“My first Out­tasight clinic was pretty funny ac­tu­ally, just try­ing to get the feel on the pond and then on the mov­ing wa­ter, to keep your bal­ance, it was kind of in­ter­est­ing,” he said.

Bed­well soon picked up ba­sic kayak­ing skills in­clud­ing do­ing an Eskimo roll. An Eskimo roll is when a kayaker flips up­side down in the kayak and then uses his pad­dle to flip him­self back up­right.

“Still to this day when I go into some of the rapids I still get a lit­tle ner­vous that can I make the right move, make sure I can hear my guide ,” Bed­well said. “Even though we’re blind we’re just like every­one else, we have the same thoughts and feel­ings.”

Af­ter that first Out­tasight clinic, Bed­well was sit­ting in the air­port talk­ing with Mornini, who said, “How would you like to be the first ever blind vet­eran to kayak the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon?”

Bed­well said he thought to him­self, ‘that’s cool,’ and be­lieved that nei­ther of them thought he would be kayak­ing the river within the year — maybe in five or six years down the road at best. They were wrong.

“Joe in­stilled a dream in me,” Bed­well said.

Nine months later

Nine months af­ter the Mon­tana clinic, Mornini called Bed­well on the phone and asked if he would be in­ter­ested in do­ing the trip in a raft first to get a feel of the river. Bed­well im­me­di­ately said no, that he wanted to do it in a kayak.

“A raft would scare the crap out of me,” Bed­well said. “Joe kind of chuck­led and laughed and said, ‘Well you got to do at least

a thou­sand of those Eskimo rolls to gain more ex­pe­ri­ence,’ so I went to my pond with my kayak and started do­ing Eskimo

rolls and called some friends down from the South­east, went down there pad­dling with them and got a lit­tle bit of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Bed­well did well over 1,500 Eskimo rolls in prepa­ra­tion for the trip.

“You try to push your­self

for the right rea­sons,” Bed­well said. “My mo­ti­va­tional fac­tor is to make a dif­fer­ence, to let peo­ple re­al­ize it truly can be done.”

When Bed­well first sat on the Grand Canyon wa­ter he thought that he might have bit­ten off more than he could chew

be­cause of the mass of the wa­ter. He had pre­pared him­self to swim a lot and pos­si­bly ride the raft through some of the river, as Mornini told him could hap­pen.

What Bed­well did not know be­fore the trip was that Mornini had told Bed­well’s guide, Alex Niel­son, to not let him run some of the big rapids like Hance, Crys­tal and Lava.

How­ever, when Bed­well and Niel­son reached the first of the three big rapids, Hance, they ran it. Only af­ter run­ning it did Bed­well learn that Mornini had ad­vised them not too.

“I [Bed­well] asked Alex, ‘Why did you let me do it?’ and Niel­son said, “be­cause we could,”

In the end, Bed­well ran ev­ery sin­gle rapid, pad­dled ev­ery sin­gle mile and only had to swim twice due to his kayak flip­ping over, through­out the 16-day trip.

When Bed­well got off the river and called Mornini to tell him about the ex­pe­ri­ence, he first teased him a lit­tle bit.

“You were right: I had to swim a lot and didn’t run all the rapids, and he starts telling me, ‘that’s OK, it’s all right,’ to which I said, ‘Well Joe, no, I’m ly­ing to you, I only swam twice and ran ev­ery rapid,’” Bed­well said.

At the time of the phone call, Mornini was driv­ing the TRR trailer and had to pull over to the side of the road be­cause he had got­ten emo­tional.

“I could not talk [for] a bit,” Mornini said. “I had

re­lief that he was OK and was proud of what he ac­com­plished...he was the first blind vet­eran to pad­dle the en­tire length.”

Not only was that an ac­com­plish­ment for Bed­well, but it was an ac­com­plish­ment for TRR, to show­case to other blind and dis­abled veter­ans out there to dis­cover the pro­gram and give it a try, Mornini said.

Bed­well added: “I’ll never for­get he [Mornini] said, ‘Do you re­al­ize what you’ve done right here?’ and I jok­ingly said, ‘Yeah I just kayaked the Colorado River,’ and he an­swered, ‘No, you know what I mean.’”

Bed­well re­mem­bers the last night on the river, sit­ting around camp know­ing he only had a few miles to go and it was all calm wa­ter.

“I re­mem­ber telling every­one at the camp, ‘You know it’s cool to say I was the first blind per­son to kayak the en­tire length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon’… it was very hum­bling,” Bed­well said.

More than just a kayak

“For me TRR has given me the con­fi­dence to do things on the wa­ter ... It’s em­pow­er­ing to have the abil­ity to pad­dle on the wa­ter in­de­pen­dently,” Steven Baskis said.

Baskis, of Mon­trose, Colo., lost his sight on May 13, 2008, when he was serv­ing in the U.S. Army 4th In­fantry Di­vi­sion in Iraq. He was in the lead ve­hi­cle of a con­voy when it was struck by an IED.

The blast caused a lot of metal to be pushed through the side of the ve­hi­cle, and as a re­sult, lit­tle pieces broke off and dam­aged Baskis’ eyes. He also suf­fered from vas­cu­lar dam­age, bleed­ing in the brain and nerve dam­age in his left arm.

“I don’t think I would be here to­day if I wasn’t in a ve­hi­cle. My team saved my life and I woke up on the other side of earth at Wal­ter Reed with my life very changed — it was a sur­real mo­ment,” Baskis said.

Baskis be­came a good friend of Bed­well’s, af­ter hav­ing par­tic­i­pated in Out­tasight Clin­ics to­gether. Be­sides kayak­ing, they have also climbed moun­tains to­gether.

“It’s re­ally im­por­tant to un­der­stand that TRR gives some­one con­fi­dence and strength and the abil­ity to reeval­u­ate what they are ca­pa­ble of do­ing,” Baskis said. “It has a huge im­pact on some­one’s life even within daily liv­ing.”

For Bed­well, all of his achieve­ments are his way of pay­ing back all of the men and women that have helped him and made sac­ri­fices for him through­out the years.

“I don’t know if I make a dif­fer­ence so much, I’m just Lon­nie, I’m noth­ing spe­cial, I’m no dif­fer­ent than other peo­ple,” Bed­well said. “I re­mem­ber telling Joe one time that his dream be­came my re­al­ity and now I hope that my re­al­ity can be­come some­one else’s dream.”

PHOTO BY JAMES Q. MARTIN

Navy vet­eran Lon­nie Bed­well, who is blind, makes his se­cond de­scent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 2014.

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