Operation Peer Support (OPS) News
Operation Peer Support (OPS) is a program designed to support the hundreds men and women who are returning to the US blinded or experiencing significant visual impairment in connection with their service fighting the Global War on Terror; Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
Blinded Veterans Complete Kayaking Grand Canyon’s Colorado River
by Chet Curtis
Five blinded veterans from the congressionally chartered Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), supported by members of Team River Runner (TRR) have just completed kayaking 226 miles of the Colorado River which included some of the most dangerous rapids in the nation. Begun on 1 September, the 12-day journey started at Lees Ferry, Colorado and ended at Diamond Creek near Flagstaff, Arizona. Team River Runner provided three kayaking instructors per veteran, along with other volunteers helping the blinded veterans navigate the Grand Canyon category four and five rapids.
“We each had three guides, said Brian Harris, one the veteran participants. A guide in front who let us know what was ahead, another to the side to give us warnings and another following behind who would help in case of any trouble. It worked very well.” The Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River, like several other big-water western rivers, uses a scale of 1-10 for rapids, 10 being the most difficult. “The most difficult rapids we experienced, said Harris, were the ones in which the waves were high and came at you from the sides as opposed to coming at you from the front, but we had trained for this for nine months and knew what to do.”
Harris, at first had his doubts about kayaking the river. “I’m a blind, below the kneecap amputee, said Harris, so after four strokes and two surgeries, I was at the point where I didn’t think I could do much in adaptive sports but, not only did I take it to the next level, but I proved I can succeed at what I put my mind to.” Lonnie Bedwell, a blinded Navy veteran and team leader and life member of BVA said, “These BVA veterans are demonstrating to the public their accomplishments to inspire others with disabilities to continue to participate in recreational activities." Bedwell, who kayaked the Colorado River in 2013, 2015, and again in 2016 is the first blinded veteran to navigate the difficult river.
“Increased cooperation and understanding between these veterans constantly build confidence,” said Bedwell. Army veteran Steve Baskis considered this the experience of a lifetime.
“I never thought I would kayak the Grand Canyon, but after meeting Lonnie and working with him and other veterans over the past few years, a dream became reality,” said Baskis. I recall nine years ago paddling across a placid lake in Portland, Oregon, feeling like I did not paddle well. At the time, I had only been an injured soldier for a year or two and my left arm and hand did not function well because of severe vascular and nerve damage. Deep down I wanted to paddle better and I wanted to pursue moving water. Over the years, I got the chance to work all over the country on different types of white water, building skills and confidence to pursue more rivers. Blindness provides focus, all that I am thinking about is the sound in front of me coming from my guide and all the technique related to paddling the boat. I truly have to focus before entering the big rapids. Focusing on my breathing and relaxing my body, allows me to track my guide’s monotonous, repetitive verbal communication. The canyon was absolutely a huge rush, tranquil and serene moments, interrupted by roaring wild rapids. There is something about a blind person paddling independently through chaotic whitewater, you truly feel empowered when you make it to the bottom of the rapid successfully, still on your boat. The trip was truly special for me and is hard to put into words sometimes. You had to be there on the trip to feel the energy from everyone and the accomplishment everyone felt.” Travis Fugate, a blind veteran, mentioned, “I don’t think I will ever say ‘I can’t’ again.” This seemed to be the sentiment among all the blind veterans as their hard work and can-do attitude throughout the trip, inspired their veteran guides and safety boaters.
The team was led by Dave Robey, a retired Navy Captain and the program director of TRR. Other members of the Blinded Veterans included retired Army veterans Steve Baskis, Travis Fugate, Kathy Champion, and Brian Harris.
TRR is an adaptive paddling adventure program for wounded and disabled veterans, their family members, and other non- military disabled paddlers in communities across the nation. The organization began service to returning wounded service people at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in 2004. Since their formation, it has placed 10,000+ veterans into kayaks in more than 60 chapters nationwide. Follow the vets here at www.trr.org .
Upcoming OPS Events
Heroes New Hope Foundation all-inclusive turkey hunting trip for blinded veterans.
This event will host 2-4 blinded veterans for an all-inclusive turkey hunt which will include travel, lodging, license fees, tags, and meals. All attendees will have a professional guide to assist them in all aspects of this event. Dates TBD.