By Margie Arnold and William Prichard
21st Force Support Squadron
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — During a personal ice climbing trip in western Colorado, William Prichard fell off some “bad ice.” That more than 40-foot fall shattered his vertebrae which sliced through his spinal cord causing permanent damage. “The pain was indescribable,” he said.
An outdoor adventure guide for the military, he used his medical and survival skills to stay alive until help arrived. His climbing partner buried him in the snow with only a small hole to breathe and talk through. “I had to slow my heart rate in case I was bleeding internally and had to limit the swelling to my spinal cord; the snow did both.”
After six hours of waiting, search and rescue transported him to an ambulance and straight into emergency surgery. After a month in ICU and for months after, Prichard was wheelchair bound, couldn’t feel his legs and had lost more than 40 pounds.
After four months of inpatient rehab at Craig Hospital in Denver he was transferred to Brook Army Medical Center’s Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, enduring another seven months of rehabilitation with other severely injured active duty members. Part of that recovery involved kayaking with the local San Antonio chapter of Team River Runners.
Paddle sports offer unique healing
TRR is a national, non-profit organization founded in 2004 in Washington, D.C., by a group of kayakers who wanted to help military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Due to its success, this primarily volunteer organization expanded its program to other Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs facilities across the country. TRR helps injured active duty and veteran service members — and their families — regain a sense of self and experience independence again through paddling sports.
Why paddle sports? It’s different from the normal therapy routine a recovering service member encounters; it offers unique challenges as well as many rewards; and water itself is a healing, soothing, refreshing, restorative environment symbolic of new beginnings. Including the service member’s family in the therapy session enhances the healing. In fact, TRR encourages family participation with each member.
These physical therapy sessions for the individual also become emotional therapy sessions for the family. “A person highly sensitized to loud noises or crowds or certain smells will avoid those situations when they return home from war. That can create a challenge for the family that likes to get out and do things. So each pool session is an opportunity to create a brand new family experience and do something together in a safe and supportive environment that creates new bonds and new memories,” said Prichard.
“The road to recovery is not fast; it’s going to have many obstacles and many challenges. There’s a process, an entire healing process,” said Marc Dervaes, a participant with Colorado Springs TRR for almost three years. He is now the area program coordinator with Wounded Warrior Project and hopes to build a good partnership between WWP and the local TRR chapter to provide more programming, support and opportunities.
“I lost my arm in ‘09 and I’m still healing. I still have obstacles. I still have to manage meds. I have memory issues. But I use physical activity like this to put it away for a while. Team River Runners really helps that, not to mention it’s something my wife and I can do together as a team. What was once a unified team in combat is now a different unified team. Sometimes, down the river, you’re in combat. You know, it’s you against the river. And knowing that your teammates are in front of you and behind you is a great feeling. So if I wet exit, I know that somebody’s going to get my boat and most likely I’m going to be able to swim to the side. And it’s a support thing that a lot of these guys feed off of and enjoy. They miss it. They really miss it,” said Dervaes.
TRR comes to Peterson AFB
TRR’s Colorado Springs chapter had been working with wounded warriors from Fort Carson’s Warrior Transition Battalion, helping their physical and emotional recovery after a traumatic injury. However, due to policy changes at the facility they were using, TRR needed to find a new location that would also allow retired military, veterans and the wounded service members’ families to participate as one. In January of 2012, TRR was referred to the Aquatic Center at Peterson AFB as a potential solution.
When TRR came calling in January, an enthusiastic Prichard, himself an adaptive paddling instructor for the American Canoe Association and now the Aquatics Center director at PAFB, not only offered them use of the pool after hours, but also the use of kayaks and other equipment from the on-base Outdoor Recreation. Prichard was now able to extend a helping hand to TRR. Since that time, weekly groups of 10 to 15 participants have shown up to paddle. “For me, as an instructor, my injury is a common thread, a credibility factor for the process that each participant goes through,” said Prichard.
The local chapter
The Colorado Springs chapter of TRR, or Butts in Boats, as they playfully refer to themselves, is staffed by three full-time volunteers. One is Kellie Matack, who has participated in the program during her previous fight with cancer. Now she coordinates participation in both local and national TRR events, is a level III kayak instructor for the ACA, and has been involved with TRR for more than three years at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the Colorado Springs chapters.
“We are grateful that Peterson Air force Base welcomed us with open arms. Will (Prichard) has been accommodating and generous, not only in the use of facilities and gear, but also in his wealth of knowledge in regards to adaptive paddling,” said Matack. “It’s a lifestyle change. Our goal is to see the participants heal, grow and eventually take on leadership roles in the chapter and go back into their communities to promote, mentor and teach others with disabilities.”
“When my husband returned from deployment, he seemed lost, numb and frustrated with a lot of things. We moved to Fort Carson and he joined this TRR chapter as a participant; now he’s an instructor. Being involved with TRR has not only brought new meaning to his life and given him goals for the future, but it was also therapeutic for our relationship and gave us new common ground, a deeper connection,” Matack said.
A shared vision
With Prichard’s love of kayaking, his therapy program with TRR was a natural fit and allowed him to work through the traumatic events that put him in rehab.
Prichard’s life now has new direction, shaped by his own injury and rehabilitation, his initial connection to TRR in San Antonio, and then opening the Aquatic Center to the local TRR. He is currently the only adaptive paddling instructor in the surrounding area and is undergoing intensive training in states from Alaska to New Hampshire. His passion is to become an adaptive paddling instructor-trainer and open the doors to understanding and accommodation for wounded military and veterans. That would involve visiting or hosting all wounded warrior transition battalions in order to educate physical therapists, command staff, Adventure Programs staff, Outdoor Recreation staff, local TRR chapters and even those who rent canoes and kayaks about adapting their programs and equipment to accommodate those with a disability. At Penn State’s Military Inclusion Conference earlier this year, he had two opportunities to network with Department of Defense personnel around the world in hopes of doing just that.
The future of adaptive water sports depends on building awareness and creating events where all levels of ability are invited to join. “My dream is to create an event at each organization that goes through an adaptive paddling workshop and that draws large numbers of participants from all over the region and from many different organizations and groups.”
TRR, other wounded military programs and Prichard are hoping to create international awareness of adaptive water sports. It has already begun in the Wounded Warrior Games and the Paralympics, and hopefully will be expanding into other arenas by 2016. The hope is that several wounded warriors will win medals and become spokespersons for adaptive paddling and the benefits to life and family. Not only will they achieve something heroic for themselves, but their success could also inspire future development and financial support for adaptive and inclusive programs in the military, as well as public programs.
How to be part of the team
The TRR works with active duty, retired military, veterans and their families — all are welcome. If you or someone you know might benefit from TRR, go online to www.TeamRiverRunners.org and look up your local chapter contacts. You can volunteer with TRR, too. If you are in the Colorado Springs area, email ColoradoSpringsTRR@gmail.com for more information.