Water, they say, has healing powers. And no one understands that better than the St. Louis Chapter of Team River Runner.

Team River Runner is a growing national organization that helps disabled veterans experience paddle sports like canoeing, kayaking, and even whitewater rafting.

“In fact, our initiative began as a whitewater expedition group” said Tom Cooke, coordinator of the St. Louis chapter. “The founders weren’t even veterans. They just saw these Afghanistan and Iraqi war veterans who were back from war, struggling to return to civilian life and full of adrenalin. What better way to work that off than hitting whitewater?”

So, about once a month, Cooke and a dozen or two other veterans take to the water across Missouri and the United States. Those experiences may be a Class II (or higher) Ozark stream, a nearby river, or even someplace further afield, from Colorado to Pennsylvania and beyond.

The members, like the experiences, are also diverse, but they all share their military experiences and their challenges, whether they’re visible or not.

“Personally, I suffer from PTSD,” Cooke said. “I call it the silent killer. I hate it. I wish nobody had to suffer from it. But when me and the guys float one day on a river or do an overnight trip, we get in touch with nature, and it just heals the mind. And that’s the right thing we want to do. Heal the mind to where we can actually function and contribute, which we all are.”

Cooke joined the Navy in 1987 and began serving aboard an aircraft carrier in Desert Shield in 1991. His carrier was sitting on the Indian Ocean when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, turning Desert Shield into Desert Storm. He now works as a pipefitter for the Veterans’ Administration.

Another St. Louis River Runner, Skip Mann, joined the Navy in 1972. In 1977, he started training to be a combat doctor at the Navy Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Illinois. He later became a surgery technician with the Navy before joining the Army. There, he earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing and became a Licensed Practical Nurse. He was assigned to the 25th mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) unit.

Mann finally retired from the military in 2005 as a member of the Air Force. He served as a flight nurse, flying active missions out of Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County, Illinois.

“I was there when the Afghan war kicked off,” Mann recalled. “My first grandchild was born when I was in the desert. I spent some time all over the Arabic Sea, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan — the whole theater.

“I survived,” he added. “That’s all that matters.” 

St. Louis Team River Runner - Tom Cooke and Skip Mann

Team River Runner coordinator Tom Cooke (left) and veteran Skip Mann.

But, Mann quickly notes, today’s veterans want to do much more than survive.

“They don’t look at themselves as damaged,” said Mann. “Even struggling veterans know they have much to offer because of what they went through, because of who they are, and because of their training. You can’t replace military training for anything.”

Team River Runner is open to any veteran, regardless of their struggles. Cooke’s group has boats outfitted for wheelchairs and other assistive devices, and he has even attended a clinic to learn how to guide blind veterans on the water. In fact, he and his teenaged son recently accompanied a blind veteran on the Class 2 Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania.

“We got off the river, and I overheard my son tell a group of hikers nearby, ‘I just guided a blind veteran down a Class II river! It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life!’” Cooke said.

“That’s what this is all about. I call this my gratifying volunteering job. Some of these guys have actually come out and said, ‘This almost saved my life.’ I can’t say they were to the point where they were going to end things, but that’s how they express it: ‘This saved my life.’”

One aspect of Team River Runner that fuels such powerful feelings is the sense of camaraderie the veterans experience with each other on the water. They work together as a team, look out for each other, and make split-second decisions — just as they have in battle.

“That camaraderie is something returning veterans really miss,” Cooke explained. “You are doing some of the craziest things you can think of with guys you served with, or maybe you’ve just met them, and they served somewhere else. That’s the huge part of all the veterans’ organizations.”

And even if whitewater is not your thing, both Cooke and Mann suggest all veterans seek those organizations out. Mann, for example, is also active in a veterans’ bicycling group: Team Red, White, and Blue. At the end of the day, Cooke noted, you can gain a lot just by hanging out.

“I just love hanging out with veterans,” he said. “They got cool stories. They’re cool people. They don’t judge. They just want to have a fun time, hang out, enjoy a campfire, and maybe spend time running fast rapids on the river. And we do a lot of that.”

Author: Tim Fox is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Team River Runner St. Louis on an outing to the Buffalo River in Arkansas.