GLENWOOD CANYON – Their wounds are still freshly imprinted on their bodies and in their minds. Healing seems interminable when you’ve lost a limb or an eye or the normal functions of the mind. The moment of their injuries lives in crystal clarity, and they recite the dates and places with certainty.”I got hit on November 14, ’04,” says Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, a powerfully built 42-year-old with a kerchief cap and a black patch over his left eye. That’s when he and his unit – part of the 503rd Infantry Division proudly known as “The Rock of Corregidor” – was ordered to shut down a mosque in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, a known insurgent headquarters.”I took fire the moment I stepped out of our vehicle. I was a senior sniper, and I had to get to a place where I could control access to the region, so I got up on the second floor of a half destroyed building.” Machine gun fire soon peppered the wall nearest him. “There were tracers bouncing all around me and I couldn’t believe I was not hit.” When the machine gun stopped, scattered rounds came in. “I had been under fire before, and you get used to that. When I rolled out of cover to look for a target, I got hit.”
Shannon pulls up his eye patch and reveals a concavity where his left eye should have been. He indicates the path the bullet took as it shattered his occipital cavity, pushing bone and bullet fragments into his head.Shannon, 42, a father of three boys, has been kayaking for a year, training once a week in the pool at Walter Reid Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Team River Runner works in partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA introducing veterans to life-affirming activities. On this, their first trip to Colorado, the group has kayaked the Arkansas, the Crystal and the Colorado rivers near Glenwood Springs.”I’m a big adventure sports junkie and always have been,” says Shannon. “After running the Crystal yesterday, I was so incredibly pumped. I said to myself: ‘I did that! I did that!’ And that’s our motto: ‘We can do this!’ It’s about ‘life is not over for us.'””When I’m in a kayak, I’m like everyone else who has legs and arms,” agrees Corporal Derrick Harden. On Jan. 17, 2005, Harden was standing next to a car in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, when a bomb went off four feet away. “I got blown through a concrete wall and was buried under all the rubble. Then I got shot twice from a guy on a rooftop.”
Harden, who was then 19, is missing his right leg below the knee. His left leg bears multiple scars from the explosion that blew him through the wall. Now he paddles a kayak through rapids with a smile on his face. “Normally, I never would have even thought about going down a river because I used to be terrified of water. But after that happened, I figured I might as well try it. The kayak makes my transition easier because I know I can still do things. This is a lot of fun. I love it.””We are a kayak clinic, using the kayak as a therapy tool,” explains Joe Morinini, 53, the volunteer program director whose unflagging energy and infectious spirit are the driving force behind the program. “It is also emotional therapy because it’s a very healing thing to be on the river. We hope that by building confidence in these guys they can participate in a high adventure sport the same as anybody. Then they’re no longer disabled; they just challenge themselves to do bigger and bigger water.”
Joe purposefully orchestrated the Colorado trip, but the critical funding came by accident. In November 2005, Joe met Sid Dickstein, a Washington attorney and Snowmass Village second-home owner, in a Washington restaurant. Dickstein’s daughter knew Morinini from Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he teaches special education, and she introduced them. Morinini described the kayaking program, and Dickstein offered to help. ‘Colorado Sid,’ as the group now dubs him, wrote a letter to second-home-owner friends in the Aspen area asking for support. A dozen friends, plus Dickstein and his wife Barbara, pooled $19,000 in donations.”Colorado Sid and his friends have made all of this possible,” acknowledges Joe, “and so did all the other volunteers.”Tim Pfeil heard about the program this spring and volunteered to haul gear in his Suburban, which the group has nicknamed the ‘Land Raft.'”This is my vacation,” he grins. “I enjoy doing all the work because this is what I do best. It’s been so much fun, and these people are so great. It’s all right here,” he says, patting his chest. “I get more out of it than they do.””It’s not just the boaters,” emphasizes Morinini, “it’s a team. You look at these people whose wounds are so severe, and it just drives you crazy. But they never complain. They may say it hurts, but there’s no ‘Aw, Jeez!’ with these guys. There’s no whining – ever.”
Carrie Hoppes, a 24-year-old physical therapist at Walter Reid, joined the wounded warriors for this, her first kayaking trip. “Kayaking gets them back to handling normal, everyday activities – knowing that the possibilities are endless in what they can do,” she affirms. “When you see them go over the rapids, you can watch their eyes light up. No one can see any scars under the spray skirt covers, so nobody knows.”The river becomes a powerful allegory. Its ceaseless flow and immutable power bring health, healing and hope to the wounded warriors riding its currents. During a transformational weeklong trip, these soldiers are carried by mountain water while the dire flow of events that delivered them to Walter Reid is pushed into the background – along with any politics or judgments about what put them there.Sid Dickstein defused any bias in the letter he wrote to his friends: “Whatever your feelings may be about the War in Iraq, these are the people who have paid the price, and paid the price in a major way. We need to do whatever we can to support them.” What has this experience meant to wounded warrior Dan Shannon? Glancing at the friends around him, then at the cool, flowing water of the Colorado River, he ponders a moment. A smile brightens his face. “Number one: I never expected anyone to say ‘Thank you.'” Paul Andersen is a columnist and contributing writer to the Aspen Times. For more information on Team River Runner go online to teamriverrunner.org.
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