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Wounded Vets Build Skills on St. John by Kayaking, Swimming

Oct. 19, 2007 — Spearheaded by St. John's Viggo E. Sewer American Legion Post 131, the territory's residents and businesses came together to give seven Team River Runner wounded veterans, their wives and supporters a can-do experience on St. John.
"When you wound a veteran, you wound a family," said Washington, D.C.-based volunteer Gary Clarke.
The veterans, who come from different parts of the country, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., were part of Team River Runner's program that helps to expand their horizons by teaching them skills such as adaptive kayaking.
Many of the seven are double amputees, and all have mobility issues. Except for one Vietnam veteran, all served in Iraq.
Based at Cinnamon Bay Campground, the veterans arrived Wednesday and will leave Tuesday after spending Friday night camping on Jost Van Dyke and Monday night at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on St. Thomas.
American Legion members hosted a breakfast for them Friday at the campground.
"It's the least we can do for guys losing their legs," said St. John resident and American Legion member Doug Benton, who owns Crabby's Watersports in Coral Bay and donated the kayaks.
To a person, the visitors were impressed with St. John.
"It's beautiful here," said San Antonio, Texas, resident Scott Morgan, 38, as the veterans began to get organized for their overnight kayaking trip to Jost Van Dyke.
Chris Fesmire, 29, visiting from Nederland, Colo., with his wife, Willow, said he was having a blast. Fesmire said he really enjoyed being able to kayak with his wife.
"And see a smile on her face," he said.
Pete Rooney, 24, from Cummington, Mass., and visiting with his wife, Susanne, said swimming in the ocean was like swimming in a bathtub.
"I can't describe how happy I am on a tropical island," Rooney said.
"Awesome" was a word the veterans and their wives used frequently.
"I've never been to the ocean before," said Danielle Pannell of Hot Springs, Ark. "We're seeing things in real life that we only see on (the) Discover (Channel)."
She came to accompany her husband, veteran Kevin Parnell, 29.
John Jones, 30, also from San Antonio and visiting with his wife, Amber, said the entire visit was physical therapy thanks to walking on uneven surfaces, walking on the beach and dealing with the waves.
"There are balance issues," Jones said.
His wife said her husband, a double amputee on prosthesis, got around so well because he worked very hard in physical therapy.
Kevin Parnell said he had just gotten out of the Army and money was tight, so this trip was not something he and his wife could afford on their own.
He also noted that he "loved the old guys," meaning the American Legion members, who, for the most part, are in their 50s and 60s and served in the military decades ago. He said he's learned a lot about how to navigate the government bureaucracy from those he met at Veterans Affairs facilities.
"They've been through the ropes," Parnell said. "Their wisdom has been beneficial."
Bill Johnston, 59 of Butler, Penn., is a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs. He had other advice for the younger men.
"It's a matter of staying in shape if dealing with a disability," he said. "The more they do, the more they'll be able to do."
Johnston said he wims everyday at the local YMCA.
The trip happened only because of donations large and small from various organizations, including Hovensa, Clarke said. For a while it looked like the organization would not be able to raise enough money, he said, but thanks to help from the office of Delegate Donna M. Christensen, the organization got in touch with people who could assist.
St. John stores donated items for goody bags, Maho Bay Camps hosted a dinner Thursday night and the island's Administrator's Office helped out by organizing VITRAN transportation using the bus company's wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Additionally, St. Thomas American Legion Post 90 provided transportation on St. Thomas.
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