GLENWOOD CANYON ” Their wounds are still fresh on their bodies and in their minds.
Healing seems interminable when you’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.
“I got hit on November 14, ’04,” said 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 known as “The Rock of Corregidor” ” was ordered 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,” Shannon said.
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,” he said.
When the machine gun stopped, scattered rounds came in. “I had been under fire before, and you get used to that,” Shannon said. “When I rolled out of cover to look for a target, I got hit.”
Shannon pulls up his eye patch and reveals a small crater where his left eye should be. He indicates the path the bullet took as it shattered his occipital cavity, pushing bone and bullet fragments into his head.
Shannon, a father of three boys, has been kayaking for a year, training once a week in the pool at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Team River Runner works in partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA introducing veterans to life-affirming activities.
On this, their first trip to Colorado, the group has kayaked the Arkansas, Crystal and Colorado rivers.
“I’m a big adventure sports junkie and always have been,” Shannon said. “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.'”
“When I’m in a kayak, I’m like everyone else who has legs and arms,” added Cpl. Derrick Harden. On Jan. 17, 2005, Harden was 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,” he said. “Then I got shot twice from a guy on a rooftop.”
Harden, who was then 19, is missing his right leg below the knee. His left leg bears multiple scars from the explosion that blew him through the wall. Now he paddles a kayak through rapids with a smile on his face.
“Normally, I never would have even thought about going down a river because I used to be terrified of water,” he said. “But after that happened, I figured I might as well try it. The kayak makes my transition easier because I know I can still do things. This is a lot of fun. I love it.”
“We are a kayak clinic, using the kayak as a therapy tool,” said 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,” Morinini said. “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.”
Carrie Hoppes, a 24-year-old physical therapist from Walter Reed, joined the wounded warriors for this, her first kayaking trip.
“Kayaking gets them back to handling normal, everyday activities ” knowing that the possibilities are endless in what they can do,” she said. “When you see them go over the rapids, you can watch their eyes light up. No one can see any scars under the spray skirt covers, so nobody knows.”
What has this experience meant to Shannon? Glancing at the friends around him, then at the cool, flowing water of the Colorado River, he pondered a moment. A smile brightened his face: “No.1: I never expected anyone to say ‘Thank you.'”
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