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Whitewater wellness

Disabled veterans kayak to help mend war wounds

Luke Graham

— It was hard to tell, anytime during the week, that Louis Stamatelos once spent a month in a coma or that doctors had pronounced him dead four separate times.

It was hard to see the wounds war had caused. It was hard to see Stamatelos’ right arm was paralyzed. It was hard to see the after-effects of a sniper hit while he was on his post in July 2006 in Iraq.

Stamatelos certainly would fit in anywhere, but his ability to shed the scars of war was never more evident than when he was kayaking the Yampa River.

He looked, acted and played the part of almost anyone a person would find on the river on a warm and sunny day in Steamboat Springs.

That could be said for any of the disabled veterans who were in Steamboat this month with Team River Runner, an organization that uses kayaking to help veterans recover emotionally and physically.

The organization, started in 2004, is designed to help veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and at other military and veterans’ hospitals around the country, heal through whitewater boating.

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“Just the other day, we’re coming down the Elk River and I look over at a guy that’s lost both legs above the knees,” co-founder Joe Mornini said. “He’s just totally in control. I look at that and think – and there’s dozens and dozens of others – that’s what makes it worth it.”

Mornini started Team River Runner after learning what veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are going through. He also knew people within the kayaking community and realized what a benefit the sport of kayaking could be for people with disabilities.

This week’s event brought more than 10 disabled veterans for a week of kayaking all around Routt County.

“This is just fun,” Stamatelos said. “It’s totally different. But I love being here around all the other veterans.”

The best of it

Stamatelos said Team River Runner has done more for his emotional state than anything. There was a time, he said, when he was in the hospital and he broke down, worrying what life would be like without the use of his right arm.

He admits it was a dark place, but it was also the time he decided that was the first day of the rest of his life.

“I made a decision right there,” he said. “I was going to make the best of it. I still have one arm and two legs, and I was going to make the best of it.”

So were all the veterans in Steamboat this month. From Jordan Pierson, who lost his left leg in an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq; to Kevin Pannell, who lost both legs to grenades in Sadr City, Iraq; and to Tom Moore, who is battling post traumatic stress disorder after two tours as a medic.

“I’ve seen more body bags than I want to count,” said Moore, who also served as a medic in the Abu Ghraib Prison treating Iraqi prisoners. “: But this is my outlet. I love this thing.”

The program is designed to use kayaking as that outlet. Team River Runner has similar programs in 10 areas across the country. Mornini said the organization hopes to open 16 more in the next couple of years. The organization leads trips all across the country with veterans of different ability levels.

“It’s cool when you’re in a boat and you don’t get the stares you do in an airport,” Pierson said. “It’s cool (that) people can see you in the boat and see that you can do what everyone else can. : Pretty much, I can do whatever you can do, I just have to do it in a different way.”

Pannell, who lives in Arkansas, has come full circle with the Team River Runner program. He is preparing to move to Portland, Ore., to become a river rafting guide.

He’s been on several trips with Team River Runner and considers his injury to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to him.

“Not once have I ever been depressed about my legs,” he said. “There are so many worse things that can happen. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I was trudging through life, and I didn’t get out there and live. If there was a miracle surgery that would give me back my legs, I wouldn’t do it.”

And that’s why Mornini does it. That’s why, despite having a family and another full-time job as a special education teacher, Mornini takes his time to try give back a little piece of life some of the disabled veterans may have lost.

“It’s hard on my wife,” Mornini said. “It’s hard to be away from my family. It’s overwhelming at times, but it’s all worth it.”

On the ‘Net

To learn more about Team River Runners or to donate, visit http://www.teamriverrunn….