Veterans Day 2015 finds Jason Pilarksi among the thousands of U.S. veterans who are still battling physical and emotional wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pilarksi, who served three tours of duty with the Army in Iraq, says he finds peace some days while paddling a kayak on a quiet Missouri lake.
“I just like to get out on the water and go,” he says.
Pilarksi gets outpatient treatment at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in south St. Louis County for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, which he attributes to multiple incidents involving roadside bombs in Iraq.
Kayaking is one of the more unusual kinds of recreational therapy offered at Jefferson Barracks. Pilarski says that being on the water is relaxing -– and freeing.
“Here in Missouri we don’t have a lot of white water rafting so we can literally get out in a lake, get out in a river and just kind of do our own thing -- not being told what to do by the water smashing up in the rocks,’’ he says.
'Here, you are not judged'
The St. Louis VA collaborates with Team River Runner, a national nonprofit that promotes adaptive kayaking for wounded and disabled veterans. The program was founded in 2004 by volunteers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington to help wounded combat veterans.
Team River Runner now has offshoots in more than 40 locations across the U.S. At Jefferson Barracks, the program includes veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as older veterans from previous conflicts.
VA recreational therapist John Schmeink says the program is free and provides the kayaks and equipment.
“It helps everybody,’’ he says. “So the guys with PTSD, maybe it helps them get out of the house and break that shell a little bit. People with physical problems, they’re able to start working on strengthening. We’ve had guys come out here in prosthetics. They might be missing a limb, but they are able to take part in the activity because we’ve got adaptive equipment for them.”
The veterans are taught the basics of kayaking in the medical center’s swimming pool before they can participate in excursions to area lakes and streams.
The pool is a lively place on Tuesday mornings when veterans get their weekly doses of recreational therapy in colorful kayaks. The water’s always warm – on this day it is 94 degrees. And so is the praise from the volunteers who teach paddling and safe-boating techniques. Encouragement echoes off the walls, especially for the beginners.
Kathy Pszonka, an experienced kayaker, volunteers at the VA.
“I have seen the vets have so much fun once we get them on the river,’’ she says. “They have to learn their basics here, but once they get on the river they just really love it.”
Some of the veterans are reluctant to try kayaking and watch for several sessions before getting in a boat. Pilarski says he wasn’t sure that water sports were for him.
“I’m kind of afraid of water. I could swim but never thought about getting in a boat and getting on the water,’’ he says. “At first, I thought about flipping over as, 'I’m going to get stuck upside down,' but once you do it once or twice you get used to the feeling of going under and knowing you’re going to come back up.”
Pilarski also values the time he spends with other veterans because they understand what he went through in Iraq -- and what he’s dealing with now. And that’s important, he says, because he is dealing with injuries that are not visible.
“And I have other illnesses from radiation poisoning that you don’t see,’’ he says. “I’m 36 years old. I look healthy, but you don’t know what’s going on inside the body and sometimes that causes a lot of anxiety for some of us younger vets because we feel what’s going on inside, but to the average person they don’t see it.”
“Here, you’re not judged.’’
'I feel happier on the water'
Among the older participants is Daniel Boone, 71, an Air Force veteran from the Vietnam War era. After he suffered a blood clot in 2007, Boone’s right leg was amputated below the knee, and he had bypass surgery earlier this year.
Boone says he's been kayaking at Jefferson Barracks since 2008, about the time the program started.
“It gives me exercise that I can do,’’ he says. “I have lower back problems also so I can’t walk very far, but I can swim. I can do anything sitting.’’
Schmeink recruited Army veteran Horace Montgomery to kayaking. In the past year, Montgomery, 59, has had open-heart surgery and a hip replacement.
“When you’re laying around not knowing what’s going to happen to you and you're not really strong -- not having confidence in being able to do anything -- and he says, 'Come on kayaking,' you do it,’’ Montgomery says.
Montgomery describes his first experience at kayaking on a lake as unforgettable.
“The most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life,’’ he says. “But I did it. And I enjoyed every minute of it.’’
Iraq veteran Marj Santhuff says she watched from the side of the pool for weeks before being coaxed into a kayak. She says kayaking helps her reduce stress and anxiety. Now, she volunteers with the program.
“I still have issues with flipping over,’’ she says. “Some days, I can do it. Some days I just swim. To me, I feel happier on the water.”