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River to Recovery

Mar 28, 2018

“It’s not easy to come home from war. Even if you’re lucky enough to have survived mentally and physically, you still have to get used to the fact that most Americans can’t relate to where you’ve been, what you think, what you’ve seen, how you feel, and what you’ve done.” - The War Comes Home, A. Glanz

For many soldiers, the return home from war poses significant challenges. Changes in environment and camaraderie make it difficult to attain a sense of normalcy. Author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger suggests that while the war experience is characterized by fear, killing, and love, that the love is the most frequent reason that soldiers miss their military experience.  The love is based on the bonds formed with soldiers they are willing to die for, and that they know are willing to die for them. In contrast, Junger states that “Western culture basically invented loneliness” and that soldiers returning from war are isolated and alienated. Developing programs that help veterans connect and form bonds with others is one way to alleviate this isolation.

The Utah Chapter of Team River Runner is one such program that helps connect veterans to one another, and to nature.  Team River Runner seeks “to provide all veterans and their families an opportunity to find health, healing, community purpose, and new challenges through adventure and adaptive paddle sports.”  Veterans are able to get physical exercise, learn a new skill, overcome emotional roadblocks caused by post-traumatic stress, and bring his/her family into a new recreational community.

Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Undergraduate Advisor Eric Gardner has volunteered with Team River Runner for three years. An experienced paddler, Eric sees parallels between river running and military experience.  River running, “like the military and law enforcement, reflects this ‘calm-before-the-storm’ atmosphere. Service men and women go from a calm setting to being presented dynamic challenges that they must negotiate.”  While whitewater paddling pales in comparison to the realities of combat, veterans may find some sense of normalcy in the feeling of facing an obstacle, adapting as a team, and meeting the challenge through teamwork.

The metaphor of the river may contribute to the recovery.  Chris, a five-year volunteer with Team River Runner here in Salt Lake City, states that the mindset of being able to “go with the flow” is an important mindset.  “If you fight against the flow of the river, the overwhelming power of the water will beat you down and the water will always win. If you fight against the seemingly overwhelming magnitude of all that life throws at you in terms of adversity and hardship, life will ultimately beat you down and you will be defeated. But, if you hone your sense of balance, steer clear of holes, learn to work with the flow and power of the water, you can use it to propel you and move you in the direction you want to go.”

Developing a new recreational hobby helps connect veterans with community.  Gardner says that Team River Runner provides the opportunity for veterans to spend time with other veterans, building camaraderie, but in a different setting.  At the same time they are able to get out and interact with people that aren’t military, and with other paddlers on the river and on trips. Often the veterans are “in this bit of a comfort zone with other veterans but we also begin to get them out into a larger paddling community”, Gardner states.  

Working with veterans and investigating the restorative qualities nature has on veterans, Dr. Daniel Dustin, a Professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah, recently published, NATURE’S GRACE: America’s Veterans and the Healing Power of Nature,  a book on how wilderness experiences are vitally important to veterans.  Dustin states that “We owe our veterans the best rivers to run, the best trails to hike, the best canyons to explore, and the best mountains to climb. We owe them the best of what America has to offer. They have earned the right of first refusal to these opportunities by volunteering to do what the rest of us have not. They have paid for them with their blood.” Dustin’s book also highlights several organizations, including Team River Runner, committed to providing America’s veterans the healing power of nature.

Photo by of Team River Runner

Most Team River Runner activities begin in a pool where veterans learn the fundamentals of paddling, and soon thereafter veterans start going on single-day, and then multi-day, river trips.  Chris shared a anecdote about how the river trips can be such a powerful catalyst for recovery during a float on the Colorado River with Team River Runner.

“Over dinner and camp fire a few guys were talking, sharing their stories of trauma, PTSD and how it all came about for them.  One veteran, Jack (not his real name), took it all in, but didn’t say much. The next day on the water I pulled alongside Jack and asked how things were going.  I was shocked to learn that his PTSD was triggered by the conversation the night before and that he hadn’t slept at all. The really troubling part was that Jack was feeling completely broken and suicidal. We talked about life and the river a bit and we agreed to check in with each other throughout the day and that we’d talk later in camp. And then it happened, the River presented one of its life altering lessons.  Leading the group through a fairly large rapid, one of the veterans paddled into a huge hole and was instantly capsized by the mass and power of the water. I was able to turn my boat upstream and began to stall my speed so I could rescue the kayaker now swimming through the waves. Unfortunately the water was swift and I was a bit too far downstream to complete a rescue but out of nowhere Jack broke through the waves and was able to get to the swimmer and tow him to shore.  Afterwards, I sat quietly aside in an eddy while Jack and a group of his fellow vets got the swimmer settled and back in his boat. It was amazing to see the veterans come together as a group and work as a team; it was like watching bees in a hive. Later that evening Jack and I spoke alone and he recounted the adventures of the day and how participating in that rescue totally changed his perspective on life and imbued him with a new sense of self-worth and purpose. The transformation was instantaneous like someone threw a giant switch. That event took place two years ago and Jack has gone on to become an amazing paddler and kayak instructor.  Even more important is the abandonment of his fatalistic thoughts and the way Jack has grown and assumed the mantle of leadership. These days, Jack inspires and mentors other veterans who are just starting their journey on the River To Recovery.”

Lonny, is a volunteer instructor for TRR and instructor/coach for the Utah Whitewater Club.  Lonny says that for him, it’s all about “the smiles and the enthusiasm on beginner’s faces as they realize exch progressive skill and get to experience the river”.  Lonny appreciates the chance to work with veterans, as he states, “I never had the opportunity to serve; I feel that this might be my opportunity to give to those who have”.  

Get Involved

You can become involved in Team River Runner by volunteering or donations.  TRR is looking for more summer volunteers and participants for trips on the Colorado, the Weber, and the Snake Rivers.  Please help spread the word about the Salt Lake City Chapter of Team River Runner.

Also, Team River Runner is only one of many organizations committed to providing veterans and their families restoration through nature and community. Read about other organizations in the book, Nature’s Grace: America's Veterans and the Healing Power of Nature by Dr. Daniel Dustin — Professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Utah.

Thank you

Thank you to Chris, Lonny, and Eric for sharing your experiences in order to make this article possible. Also thank you to Dr. Daniel Dustin for sharing excerpts from your book.

This article uses quotes and pictures from NATURE’S GRACE: America’s Veterans and the Healing Power of Nature. All content from Nature’s Grace was used with permission from the author.

Finally a thank you to all the veterans and Team River Runner volunteers that make such stories and experiences possible.


This article references an interview with author Sebastian Junger's found here.

This article quotes the mission of Team River Runner found here.