Veterans of all shapes and sizes churned up swimming pool water with their double-bladed kayak paddles on a recent Tuesday. The paddling vets in the recreational therapy program at Jefferson Barracks were preparing for a big kayak trip in Arkansas.
By Don Corrigan (South County Times)
“We have fun in the pool, but I am really looking forward to getting in the water in Arkansas,” said Bill Wiegand, a double-amputee Vietnam veteran. “We’ll be testing out our skills, but I know we’ll be safe because we all look out for each other.
“I see the benefits of this kayaking program as 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” said Wiegand. “It builds your confidence. I started it in 2012 and it took about four months to get the hang of it. Now I am helping train vets learn how to roll in their kayaks who are new to the program.”
Veterans Affairs (VA) recreational therapist John Schmienk of Waterloo, Ill., said the vets are taught the basics of kayaking in the medical center’s swimming pool before they can hit the water at local lakes or go on a river float in Arkansas.
“From a therapy standpoint, this program has a curriculum and there is a progression of classes the vets have to go through,” said Schmienk. “The mission is to have them graduate so they can get out into the community and kayak locally.
“There is a whole network of doctors here at the VA who help us with qualifying the vets for this activity,” added Schmienk. “The great thing is the vets operate on a buddy system and it doesn’t take long for them to get comfortable here.”
Marj Santhuff, an Iraq War vet from Oakville is a VA volunteer who gets in the pool and helps instruct vets in the water. She said she works with vets at all levels of ability in kayaking.
“I saw this program in action in 2004, and I said, ‘I have to do this.’ And I’ve been doing it now since 2005,” Santhuff said. “I will be going with 22 vets to Mountain Home, Arkansas, at the end of the month. We’ll try the Buffalo River and the White River.
“I have three guys without legs. I’ve got guys with brain injuries and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome),” said Santhuff. “Some of them won’t leave the house – except for this. It’s the only thing that will get them out of their house.”
Santhuff said all the vets are mobile, despite some serious injuries from their service in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. She has worked with vets ranging from 20 to 80 in age.
Army vet Horace “Ace” Montgomery likes to horse around when he’s in the pool with his kayak. He will bump into a fellow kayaker without warning, which is pretty cocky for a guy recovering from open-heart surgery and a hip replacement.
“It’s all in fun,” said Montgomery, a Vietnam veteran. “We all look out for each other. Every one here is recovering from something. I was doing water therapy and the guys said I should really try out a kayak.
“It scared me to do it at first,” said Montgomery. “And I was terrified when we went out on a lake, but then it gives you confidence that you are able to do something.”
Paul Dorosheff, a Mehlville resident and a lifeguard for the program, said what passes for “horse play” at the pool is petty tame. He does keep an eye on the guys whose kayaks go bottom up – he makes sure the guys come up.
“They’re well-behaved and this is a pretty easy job,” said Dorosheff. “We have about five to 10 volunteers that help out from organizations like Team River Runner and the Missouri White Water Association. We also get donated equipment and the Alpine Shop in Kirkwood gives us a discount on kayaks that are used in the program.”
Dorosheff has a word of advice for any vets who might be feeling down. He points out the door to the rows of headstones beyond a border fence at Jefferson Barracks. He tells them they should be grateful they are “still on this side of the fence.”
The vets in the kayak program said they don’t have time “to get down” when they are kayaking. Got to keep your eyes open. Got to look out for your buddies. Got to enjoy the water.
Water: My Best Friend
“The water is really my best friend, because it helps me find my balance,” said Otis Rice, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. “I need all the help I can get with balance, as an amputee.
“The kayak program helps me with other activities I want to do,” added Rice. “It give me confidence to try other things. It is all about enjoying life at this point. We appreciate the people who put this together.”
Putting It All Together
The kayak program was founded in 2004 by volunteers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to help wounded combat veterans. The program is now at more than 40 locations around the United States.
Team River Runner, a national nonprofit that promotes adaptive kayak activities for disabled vets, assists the St. Louis VA with its water program. Recreational Therapist Schmienk said the program at Jefferson Barracks benefits from many good-hearted people and volunteers.
“What we do is learn and practice the first three Tuesdays of the month, and then the final Tuesday we try to get outside on the water somewhere,” said Schmienk. “We might go out and try the lake at George Winter Park or Simpson Lake or somewhere on the Meramec River.
“We get volunteers and help from the White Water Association or St. Louis Canoe and Kayak,” added Schmienk. “Once or twice a year, we have a slalom race here that the Team River Runner folks help out with.”
Team River Runner now works with more than 2,100 wounded or disabled vets across the country with kayak programs. For more information on how to join, check out the website: www.teamriverrunner.org.
“I think this program provides just about as much enjoyment for all the volunteers, as it does for all the vets,” Schmienk said.