Team River Runner Trip brought 20 wounded veterans of various wars to Cinnamon Bay Campground on St. John to learn leadership skills, part of a week of kayaking, snorkeling and swimming events.
They gathered Saturday with St. John residents for a barbecue sponsored by Viggo E. Sewer American Legion Post, with help from AARP of the Virgin Islands and other members of the community. It was held at the post’s headquarters in Coral Bay.
“It’s good to hang out with guys not as fortunate as I am,” said St. John resident Les Anderson, a Vietnam veteran and American Legion member.
The veterans, who mainly served in Afghanistan and Iraq, arrived Nov. 2 and were scheduled to depart Sunday.
Some are back at home and out of the military but others are still in its ranks. Several are still getting medical care at military hospitals.
U.S. Army Sgt. Kyle Pietzke, 23, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., calls Walter Reed National Medical Military Center home for now. On Dec. 30, 2012, he was in a Humvee that rolled over on him after he was ejected from the vehicle.
“The vehicle crushed my pelvis and damaged my right leg,” he said.
While at the hospital, he connected with Team River Runner. Already a water sports fan, he found that the group’s water sports involvement was a good fit for him.
Army Specialist Jordan Thrash, 23, of Sodus, N.Y., calls Fort Campbell, Ky., home for the time being. He said he’s learned different way to go about getting other veterans involved in Team River Runner’s sports programs.
“You have to stop and think about who you’re talking to,” he said.
Jeff Allen, 42, of Rifle, Col., was there with his assistive dog, Lodi, age about 18 months. Burned from his arms down while on munitions duty with the U.S. Air Force, Allen said Lodi helps him get up when he falls.
“And she lets me know when I’m doing something strenuous or get too excited,” he said.
He said when that happens, his body produces a chemical that the dog can smell.
Allen and Vietnam-era veteran Ron Rudy, 67, of Olathe, Colo., volunteer together at Team River Runner’s Grand Junction, Colo., office. Rudy lost most of his arm when he was bit by a rattlesnake while caving. It hasn’t slowed him down, and he said he made five trips canoeing on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.
Several veterans spoke about how much they enjoyed their visit to St. John. With many facing frosty weather where they live, they said even this week’s downpours were a pleasant change.
“We paddled in the rain. We had a ball,” Allen said.
Tomas Carrasquel, 46, who was born in Lansing, Mich., spent time in Venezuela as a youth but now lives in Maryland. He was so enthused about life on St. John, he asked dozens of questions about the feasibility of making the move.
“How much is electricity?” he said.
Carrasquel has a medical separation from the Army because he was badly injured on July 12, 2013, when a rocket came through the roof of a gym where he was exercising. The gym was in a container at a base in Afghanistan.
A former helicopter mechanic, he said he’s gone so far as to look into the possibility of studying at the University of the Virgin Islands. Alas, the school has no engineering curriculum, and that’s what Carrasquel wants to study.
As the veterans and resident mixed and mingled, chatting about this and that, volunteers urged them to fill their plates.
“I want to make them feel a part of who we are,” St. John resident and American Legion Ladies Auxiliary member Jackie Clendinen said.
Team River Runner depends on donations to help fund its activities. Those who want to learn more or help can visit the group’s website at www.teamriverrunner.com.