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.
"Everyone wants to be supportive," said Joe Jacobi, 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the two-man canoe, on hand to teach last weekend. While they may not all back the war, the volunteers wanted to do more for U.S. troops, he said, "than just slap a sticker on the car."
The sport's -- and the river's -- reputation for danger appeals to men and women fresh from war. There, hospital smells and midnight worries give way to the white noise of the rapids, and a sport that pits body against nature.
"Anything that could get you killed is a lot of fun," said Orlando Gill, 32, an Iraq veteran who learned to kayak about five months after a rocket-propelled grenade sheared off the bottom of his right leg. "Life isn't fun unless you're getting challenged."
Gill carries his boat to the river himself and kayaks wearing his prosthetic leg, for stability. He uses his hips and torso to master the river. "Once you can break out from the group and kayak by yourself it's just you and the water," he said. "I don't think about what if; I look forward to what's coming."
On a clear weekend morning, Mornini drove the van full of soldiers into a parking lot near Lock 6, downstream from the "Feeder Canal," a stretch of river in Montgomery County's Brookmont area that is a training site for the U.S. whitewater slalom team.
Four men had come for this weekend's trip: Dale Bouck, 31, of Whitehall, Mich., who suffered a compound leg fracture during a training exercise in Iraq; Sang Nguyen, 21, and James Alexander, 20, both from New Orleans, hospitalized for stress; and Hamm.
The men don't give rank, nor do the kayakers ask. On the river, they are equals, and whole.
Hamm was a warehouse worker in Nashville whose National Guard unit went to Iraq last year. He lost a buddy there, killed by two bullets that got past his body armor. Hamm inventoried his friend's effects: a letter, a computer and a bloodstained uniform that triggered something in him that he could not control. He fasted, taking little more than water for two weeks, "for my brothers' safety," he said. On patrol in Iraq, he needed to check every village, every building, every room. One day he circled the same empty car 15 times, and eventually wound up at Walter Reed.
For six weeks, he's sat in sessions on combat stress, taken medications that "make me feel down, make me feel out," and then he met Mornini.
Who now glided up, to critique Hamm's first shot at the rapids. "When in doubt, paddle like hell," Mornini said. "You got your paddle up here" -- waving it over his head -- "you've got a zero percent chance of taking the correct stroke. Again."
The second time, Hamm made it through the rapids, only to roll in an eddy at the bottom. Shivering, he got back to the top, where Mornini joined him again.
Skin chalky with cold, Hamm paddled upriver again, then pealed out into the froth.
This time, water and man worked as one. Eddying out at the bottom, Hamm of the broken heart, a soldier no longer allowed to handle a weapon, raised his paddle aloft, shouting with joy.
Then turned around, to try again.