The Panacea of Paddling

"What's here is spiritual," says Sgt. Antonio Hamm, 22, of Nashville, navigating the Potomac as part of Team River Runner. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

Barely a month out of Baghdad, the death of a buddy replaying in his mind, Sgt. Antonio Hamm sat in a borrowed kayak on the stretch of Potomac that is his latest adversary.

"Everyone wants peace within their mind and within their heart," said the 22-year-old soldier from Nashville. "What's here is spiritual. . . . The river is the man. You can work with it or let it whip up on you."

Joe Mornini, lithe and sandy-haired, veteran of whitewater, not war, paddled up to his student. "My boat's going to be right there for you, buddy," he said, guiding the younger man from calm to quicker water, then to the rapids. "See the sun coming out?" he shouted over the roar. "That's because you're at the top of the river, dude."

Hamm laughed, high-pitched. Then he shot in, thrashing froth with his paddle, and rolled. More muscle than technique, he couldn't right himself, and bailed out -- a "swim."

"We are all between swims," Mornini said, resting his hand on Hamm's boat. "Could be years, could be days, but a swim's coming."

This is the first full season for Team River Runner, founded by Mornini and other area kayakers who want to share the physical and spiritual benefits of their sport with the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"This is a skill that can make whatever's gone" -- a leg, an arm, trust in one's body or mind -- "useful again," said Mornini, 52, a high school special-education teacher and kayak coach from Rockville. "We want to give that to these soldiers."

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, volunteers have introduced wounded veterans to activities like guitar, chess and archery. But physical therapists say kayaking is one of the best sports for those wounded in war. And this region is one of the best places to kayak.

For leg amputees, time on the Potomac works core torso muscles needed to swing a prosthetic limb. For soldiers with arm and trunk injuries, it's an upper-body workout with few equals. And for the many whose wounds are inside, like Hamm -- hurting "here," he says, touching a place on his life vest over his heart -- kayaking offers peace.

Mornini and boating buddy Mike McCormick came up with the idea for kayaking-as-therapy a year ago after a riverside talk about those wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, a figure that has reached more than 12,800. The two men wanted no payment; they consider their sport "a gift," Mornini said. Walter Weiss, a doctor at Walter Reed and an avid kayaker, heard about their plan one morning on the river. The next day, he called Mornini with all the contacts they needed.

Mornini, McCormick and a half-dozen volunteers -- called "the council" because nobody wants to be the boss -- plan the outings. Local outfitters Liquid Adventures and Calleva donate kayaks and other gear, as well as the van to transport the soldiers. Mornini shells out part of his teacher's salary for lunches and special gear, like the water socks he gave a soldier whose feet were too scarred to walk the riverbank.

The lessons come from a boating community that is one of the largest and most elite in the nation. So far, they've gotten 28 veterans into the water; about half are amputees.

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