Sam Drevo has lived in Portland more than 10 years, but he grew up just outside of Washington D.C., and counts among his friends some of the principle forces behind Team River Runner, a paddling program that has been changing the lives of veterans since its inception in 2004.
So when the D.C.-based organization sought to establish a chapter in Portland, the high-energy former Extreme Kayak World champion would naturally have a hand in it. And though Team River Runner had established a dozen other chapters across the country already, it’s hard to imagine a smoother and more hopeful kick-off than the one that happened in Portland this summer.
“Just bringing people together is really what it comes down to,” says Drevo. “The paddling community is connected. It’s a fiber-optic cable, if you know what I mean.”
Team River Runner volunteers like to say that the object of the work they do is to “get butts in boats.” But even at Walter Reed, the military hospital where the first veterans sat their butts in borrowed boats, coaxing veterans out of their rooms is seldom easy.
Veterans often say it’s difficult to talk about the war experience with people who haven’t been to war. Returning home then, isolated from the only people who understand them, and saddled with physical or psychic wounds from the Middle East, there’s so much that is new and painfully challenging. These veterans are often depressed, or suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI), or post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and these conditions so easily eclipse ideas for re-engaging with an active life.
It can only help that a new chapter is given an event so large and successful it attracts the media. The new chapter in Portland got just that when it got involved with the Blind Veterans of America (BVA), a group that held its annual conference in Portland at the end of August.
“It just gave us the opportunity to put in front of the public’s eye all of the wonderful things Team River Runner can do in a way that is more broadly consumable,” says Jerry Lorang, a veteran, and a retired V.A. official, who now helps the Portland chapter of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) to expand its influence in the city.
“When you take a group of blinded veterans and you put them on a river like the Deschutes or you take them out on the Willamette, you pique peoples’ interests,” says Lorang.
It doesn’t hurt that this local chapter of the DAV has a reliable source of income: a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week bingo hall. With money coming in, the DAV can help Team River Runner. And of course, Team River Runner can help the DAV, as this organization is striving for relevance among the vets now returning from the Middle East with little interest in joining fraternal organizations, and no appetite for bingo.
On August 17, 33 blind and partially blind veterans and their families went out for a flat water paddle on the Willamette at Sellwood Park in Portland. For a lot of them, sitting in a squirrelly kayak might have been enough to get the blood going, but just to be sure this mellow paddle was followed by a high-speed jet boat ride. Three days later, after some routine conference activities – most of which took place indoors — the volunteers, the vets, and their families, rafted whitewater on the Deschutes.
“Remarkable to me was that blind individuals jumped into the Deschutes River and floated through whitewater with nothing but a life vest on,” says Lorang, who passed on running the river himself. “And it was a thrill for them to do it.”
Perhaps no one knows that better than Steve Beres, a former sergeant in the Milwaukee Police Department, and a member of the Army National Guard, who lost his eyesight in a grenade explosion in Afghanistan in 2002. Taking on paddling, and other adventures, like the jet boating, the tandem bicycling, and the indoor climbing gym, all of which were a part of the conference festivities, Beres says, “is really just to show the newly injured service members that life is not over after injury. It’s to show you that, whether you’re blind, TBI [traumatic brain injury] — or anywhere in between – there’s still life to be lived after that. That’s one of the things I had to go through.”
Drevo, founder of Northwest River Guides, was commissioned by the DAV to document these events, and is in the process of putting together a film. Earlier this summer, he made a short documentary of the veteran participation in the Ski-to-Sea event, a 90-mile relay race in Washington that combines cross-country and downhill skiing, running, road biking, canoeing, mountain biking, and kayaking. Also commissioned by the DAV, Drevo’s Ski-to-Sea documentary will be used to show others what happens when wounded veterans are given the chance to lean into life once again.
While the blind veterans have all returned home, the new chapter of Team River Runner in Portland hopes to make itself known in all corners of the region’s V.A. hospitals, so that veterans will be referred to them.
“A lot of these guys come home with their injuries or their mental illness and they ‘Get stuck on the couch,’” says Don Smith, executive director of the Portland chapter of the DAV. “Our whole goal is to get them off the couch. And one really good way is adrenaline sports. If you get them back out doing adrenaline sports – they’re shooting some class III’s and IV’s, or dropping a couple of waterfalls or whatever, they become themselves again. We get letters from their wives and families saying thanks for giving my husband or wife a reason to go on living again.”
— By Kurt Mullen