April 17, 2014, SAN DIEGO (NNS) – A light breeze comes in from the Pacific Ocean as the sun begins to burn off the fog over La Jolla Shores. The surf is mellow and all is calm, with the exception of the seals playing in the water and barking on the rocks.
Anticipation begins to build among the growing group of kayakers. They are excited. Conversations about the coming event carry down the beach. This is a huge step forward for the group of kayakers with Team River Runner (TRR), because they are wounded warriors. They are comprised of retired and active duty military members learning to live with physical and mental injuries from accidents and trauma experienced while serving in the armed forces.
Retired Air Force Radar Technician, Cindy “Ally” Savage and her service dog “Gunny,” a white German Shepherd-Akita mix, have been practicing their kayak technique in a pool with TRR for the past month. Savage and Gunny put that practice to the test as they start their first ocean kayak trip with TRR.
“Wow,” exclaimed Savage as she rode a wave back in to shore with the wind blowing through her sandy brown hair and a huge grin on her face. “We saw dolphins and seals. Two baby seals came right up to the boat. It was amazing!”
The look on Savage’s face as she climbed from the kayak and planted her toes into the sand made it impossible to tell that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Every day has been a struggle for Savage since her accident in 1980.
“I slipped on an I-beam, and my safety belt broke,” explained Savage. “I fell four stories, landing on the cement, shattering my left arm and breaking my jaw in four places. It happened like that. I remember every second of it. It plays in slow-motion.”
Savage spent more than two years in hospitals, physically recovering from the accident. Aside from her physical injuries, which have permanently limited her mobility, Savage’s PTSD began to consume her life.
“Things started slipping with my mental state,” Savage explained. “I would get mad at the drop of a hat for no reason and not know why. It made me not want to leave the house. I was homebound for nine or ten years. I would only leave to go to the doctor. Now I’m getting out, and it’s nice. Being on the water is very calming and relaxing. It’s peaceful.”
“It’s stories like Ally’s that let our volunteers know we are doing something good here,” said Lynne Warner, director of the San Diego chapter of TRR.
TRR has 50 national chapters, and helped more than 7,500 people with debilitating injuries get into a kayak and on the water in 2013.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Warner. “The goal is to get people on the water and have a great time. It’s an opportunity for someone who has gone through a grave misfortune to learn to do something new, rather than learn to do something they used to do well. Half of the participants at our events are referred by their doctors at the Veteran Affairs clinics, as a means of exercise and an opportunity to overcome their injuries by pushing themselves to do something they may have little to no experience with.”
TRR uses kayaking to emulate a lot of the physical therapy goals and mental health goals that standard therapy achieves, in an environment that seems like play.
“We are not clinicians, but we provide an opportunity for someone to get a cardio workout, increase flexibility, work on balance and cognitive sequencing, emotional benefits and psychosocial skills.”
“I appreciate what it means to these guys,” said Dale Osborne, who has been volunteering with TRR for six years. “Most of the participants have gone through a deep issue before coming to this point and getting involved with Team River Runner. Not only do we help them physically heal, we also train them to be leaders for the next groups coming through.”
TRR helps interested participants earn certifications through the American Canoe Association, giving them the knowledge necessary to train others to kayak safely.
As for Savage, she cannot wait to get back out with Gunny and TRR for the next event.
“I’m getting out of the house now, and I have something to look forward to as opposed to sitting in my house,” said Savage, still grinning as tears began to form in the corners of her eyes. “Having something to look forward to is probably the most important thing.”
Savage brushes the sand off her feet and slips her shoes back on. As she climbs into her vehicle, her smile continues to grow while she watches the next group of wounded warriors gather at the beach and prepare to head out on the water with TRR.
For more news from Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, visit www.navy.mil/local/pacensandiego/.