Vet Lee all fired up to try kayaking

Vet Lee all fired up to try kayaking

We are so enthusiastic about kayaking, making the Team River Runner Program particularly dear to us because of its goal of “helping veterans around the community find health, healing and new challenges through kayaking.” Before we ended up with all sorts of grandiose ideas about how to reach out and help our friends at the Augusta chapter this year, we thought it would be pragmatic to do a site visit to see what goes on back in Augusta.  That said, it was time to head to south for a site visit to the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center to see how the TRR chapter works at home. 

The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center sits in the middle of beautiful Augusta. It was originally known as the Lenwood Veterans Administration Hospital and then as the Lenwood Division of the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Several of the buildings were erected back in 1912 as a Catholic School for young women. The property was later sold for use as the Lenwood Tourist Hotel and during World War I became part of Camp Hancock. After WW I, the facility was used as a 150-bed United States Government Public Health Hospital. In 1922 the Veterans Bureau took over the hospital and constructed several ward buildings and a dining hall. At one point during the late 40’s, the influx of World War II veterans resulted in the operation of over 1700 beds at the Lenwood Hospital and over 300 applicants were on a waiting list for admission. In the late 1940’s, VA acquired a 122 acre farm located three miles west of Lenwood Hospital. The farm, which was designed for patient involvement and the production of foodstuffs, was used for vegetable farming and for raising poultry and swine. Today The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center is a two division consolidated medical center. Its size and complexity rank it as one of the largest medical centers in the southeastern United States. The TRR chapter was formed under the watchful eye of volunteer Eric Gray. Wednesday nights in the pool are scheduled rolling sessions and Tuesday nights provides the opportunity to play kayak football in the Augusta canal with a crew of local Augusta paddling dignitaries.

Last fall we had the chapter as our guests here at the Nantahala. We kayaked, rafted, duckied, laughed, shared, laughed, wished we had more time….it was a great weekend. Arriving at the VA hospital we hoped to see some of the vets and volunteers that we shared time with last fall.

Volunteers are the first awesome part of the Augusta chapter. Paul, Wayne, Tom, SueEllen, Sam and of course Eric are just a few of the committed group. What a great group. It is not just that they “volunteer” their time, but that they are consistent about it—showing up every Wednesday night to help out the group of vets that arrives at pool session. They were the same group that escorted the group up to the Gorge last year—giving up a gorgeous fall weekend on their favorite home river to paddle the Tuckasegee and Nantahala. And here they are giving up their Wednesday nights to help out with rolling. There was a new face among the volunteers, Sam—a new recruit to kayaking herself, and as a PT, Sam is determined to learn how she can get more of her vets into kayaks.

More power to this group!

Vets. Of course the very most awesome part of the program. And the core of our learning experience. None of the group that arrived in the Gorge last fall were at the pool for our visit. In fact, they were not at the hospital any more. So it got us thinking about the challenge of introducing a vet to whitewater kayaking, only to see them transfer 60 days later. Solution: TRR National is working to open up more chapters so if a vet transfers from one hospital to another, there is another TRR chapter ready to embrace them into the system.

Eric gave a bit of an orientation about how the pool sessions work: the volunteers arrive, the more enthusiastic vets arrive, and then Eric goes and rounds up more of the vets to come join in. It might have been momentarily disappointing to not see any of the fall group that joined us on the Nantahala, but that disappointment was almost instantaneously dissipated when we watched the new group arriving at the pool. Lee: paralyzed from the waist down wheeling in to jump into a kayak, Tom: amputee (and a big boy!). Last pool session he tipped over a little too quickly, surfaced saying he would “never do that again,” then ten minutes later was back in a boat doing a wet exit without anyone’s pressure. The pool was scattered with vets—some not at all confident about being upside down, others fired up about anything involved with water. We spent time working with the volunteers to reinforce their good work, and some hands-on time with the vets.

Our site visit was over way too soon. And all that was left was a short tour of Augusta (including a drive past the masters course—making us kick ourselves for not bringing out golf clubs (yea right) and a good meal before heading home.