River of healing | AspenTimes.com

River of healing

Paul Andersen
Special to The Aspen Times
Post Independent/Kara K. Pearson

Cpl. Derrick Harden is missing his right leg below the knee. His left leg bears multiple scars from an explosion that blew him through a wall. Now he paddles a kayak through rapids with a smile on his face.

“When I’m in a kayak, I’m like everyone else who has legs and arms,” Harden says.

With wounds still freshly imprinted on their bodies and in their minds, a group of Iraq war veterans recently navigated the rapids of the Arkansas, Crystal and Colorado rivers.

They were in Glenwood Springs with Team River Runner, which works with the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA to introduce veterans to such life-affirming activities.

Healing can seem interminable for those who’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.

For Harden it was Jan. 17, 2005. He was 19 and 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.”

“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” ” received orders 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.

“I’m a big adventure-sports junkie and always have been,” Shannon says. “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.'”

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.

“We are a kayak clinic, using the kayak as a therapy tool,” says 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.”

Morinini orchestrated the Colorado trip with purpose, but the critical funding came by accident.

In November, Morinini met Sid Dickstein, a Washington lawyer and Snowmass Village second-home owner, in a Washington restaurant. Dickstein’s daughter knew Morinini from Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Md., where Morinini 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 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,” says Morinini, “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 says with a grin. “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.”

What has this experience meant to 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 columnists and contributing writer to the Aspen Times. For more information on Team River Runner, visit http://www.teamriverrunner.org.

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