kayak, kayaking

Adaptive Recreation Helps Reinvigorate Wounded Veterans

August 20, 2009 05:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Adaptive recreation has proven to be a valuable rehabilitation tool for veterans wounded  in Iraq and Afghanistan, reaffirming the psychological benefits of exercise.

Vets Take the Plunge

Northwest River Guides, a paddling organization based in the Pacific Northwest, reports on an adaptive recreation program for war veterans hosted by Team River Runner Portland, Ore.

A group of 60 military veterans who lost their eyesight in combat and their families are embarking on a week of whitewater boating excursions and paddling and biking trips on the Willamette River and surrounding trails, explains Sam Drevo of Northwest River Guides. According to Drevo's post, Don Smith, the Executive Director of Disabled Americans Veterans, Chapter #1 Portland, OR, claims adaptive recreation "helps many of our vets off the couch and back into life."

Team River Runner, established by Washington D.C. kayakers in 2004, works exclusively with returning veterans and has local chapters across the country.

Many Vets Living With Blindness

In an article for the Oregonian, Julie Sullivan gives a glimpse of the soldiers' first dip into the river. According to Sullivan, because of improved medical care and protective gear, the group was "one of the largest public gatherings of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who would never have survived earlier conflicts." Tom Zampieri of the Blinded Veterans Association told Sullivan that more than 1,200 U.S. soldiers were evacuated from Iraq due to eye injuries. This is 13% of total medical evacuations from Iraq, a percentage that "equals that during the Civil War." Furthermore, traumatic brain injuries suffered in combat often result in blindness months or years later.

The paddling trips are being led by Drevo and Val Shaull, a Vietnam veteran who told Sullivan the only thing that helped him "quell the demons" of war was kayaking.  "Getting away from crowds, being in nature, changes my attitude. I calm down and life is a whole lot better," he explained.

Background: Achilles Track Club, Wounded Warrior Project & Wheelchair Games for Vets

Other opportunities are available for disabled veterans who want to get involved in athletic competition, such as the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and the Achilles Track Club also work on behalf of wounded veterans.

Donna Miles of American Forces Press Service reported on the 29th National Veterans Wheelchair Games held in Spokane, Washington, in July. Nearly half of the more than 500 disabled veterans participating in the games were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Miles. Others were injured after service, including Steve McGuire, a former Navy petty officer who was in a motorcycle accident after he returned from a tour in Iraq. McGuire said bonding "with other disabled veterans, particularly those just learning to live with their disabilities," was as exciting as the competition itself.

According to the organization's official Web site, the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project combines the Wounded Warrior Project with Disabled Sports USA to "provide year-round sports programs for severely wounded service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and the global war on terrorism." The organization contends that in its 37 years or experience with such projects, it has found that "early intervention with active sports results in successful rehabilitation" for wounded veterans.

The Achilles Track Club's Freedom Team has help more than 200 wounded veterans participate in running races, including major city marathons, since 2004.

Related: Physical and psychological benefits of exercise

Regular physical exercise offers a multitude of benefits: building muscle is said to lower the risk of osteoporosis in women; exercise produces endorphins associated with improved mood; and exercise lowers the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, leading causes of death in the United States.

Reference: United States Adaptive Recreation Center (USARC)

The USARC carries out programs for disabled people through schools, rehabilitation centers, hospitals and parks and recreation departments, according to their official Web site. The organization was founded in 1983 as California Handicapped Skiers, and expanded with new programs and different sports in 1989, and again in 1993. Today, while still evolving, USARC focuses on renewing disabled peoples' self-confidence: "after learning new skills and redefining their abilities, participants are able to feel the freedom of recreating with their families and friends," the site explains.

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