St. John is beautiful, the water wonderful and the kayaking great, but the warmth and generosity of St. John residents is what made Team River Runner’s Wounded Warrior trip to Cinnamon Bay Campground special.
“The people have been absolutely marvelous. This is the friendliest group of people,” said Sean McCarthy, 65, a wounded Vietnam and volunteer with Team River Runner.
John Stone, 33, a Marine Corps veteran from Cincinnati, said that while people are quick to say how grateful they are for his service, when St. John residents say it, it sounds genuine.
Eighteen vets missing legs, feet, arms and suffering from other, less visible wounds, spent the week kayaking the blue waters off Cinnamon Bay and camping out in the campground’s rustic cottages as part of a program sponsored by the Rockville, Md., non-profit organization aimed at helping wounded veterans see life’s possibilities.
“We’re trying to work on a purposeful lifestyle,” Team River Runner Director Joe Mornini said.
The vets gathered Saturday at the campground for a farewell party hosted by American Legion Viggo E. Sewer Post 131, the Legion auxiliary and AARP.
“We appreciate what these guys have done and are doing,” Post Commander Doug Benton said, busy flipping hamburgers on the grill.
AARP President Beverly Biziewski called it the most rewarding day of her year to be able to help with the picnic.
Throughout the week, many St. John restaurants donated meals for the vets. Mornini said the trip is possible thanks to in-kind donations of things like food, transportation and the kayaks as well as accommodations discounts. He said it costs about $1,500 in direct expenses for each vet.
He said most of the money is raised through the Chaotic Kayak event held on St. John and by former resident Moe Chabuz when he runs in the 8 Tuff Miles race.
This is the fifth trip in six years to Cinnamon Bay for Team River Runner. Mornini said over the years it’s evolved into more of a leadership training program so the vets can pass along what they’ve learned to others back home.
Bill Stuges, 49, a U.S. Army veteran from Ronkonkoma, New York said that participating in Team River Runner programs gets wounded veterans off the couch and helps prevent “packing on” the weight.
“No matter what level of ability you have, you are at least able to try it. And being around fellow soldiers brings you out of your funk,” Stuges said.
Hunter McGaughey, 42, of Mountain Home, Arkansas, said the “intimate” setting at Cinnamon Bay was perfect for therapeutic rehabilitation. He said he was first involved in the program in 2009 when he was just back from an Army tour of duty in Iraq.
“This was the first normal thing I had seen in two years,” he said.
McCarthy and David Walas, 61, of Tega Cay, S.C., were among the older vets at Cinnamon Bay. Walas said it was good for the younger ones to see that the older ones are still getting around.
“And it helps them to see there really is life ahead of them,” McCarthy said.
Nate Rimpf, 24, of Raleigh, N.C., lost his feet four months ago while on duty with the Army in Afghanistan. He said he learned that kayaking was possible for those missing limbs.
“You don’t need feet to paddle, and they showed me I’m not disabled, just differently abled,” Rimpf said.
More on Team River Runner can be found online at http://www.teamriverrunner.org/