[The following story originally ran in C&K‘s 2010 Whitewater annual. Brown recently competed at the 2012 USACK Sprint Nationals]
In 2006, U.S. Army Sgt. Rob Brown was shot twice in the hip during an ambush in Ramadi, Iraq. He lost sensation in his lower right leg, and was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he learned to walk with a cane and waited for the feeling to return. It didn’t. A high school track standout at the Virginia Military Institute, Brown, 26, had always relied on running for strength, balance and clarity. When that gift was taken, he began to think of his right leg as an anchor. So he pressed doctors to amputate it.
As he recovered at Walter Reed, he began kayaking with Team River Runner, a non-profit that teaches paddling to disabled veterans. Brown nailed his roll at his first pool session, and soon was paddling whitewater. Four years later, he runs rivers up to Class V and says the rush is similar to the singleness of purpose he felt at war. Today, he teaches kayaking to other veterans and inspires civilians and vets alike with his quiet determination.
With the aid of a high-tech prosthetic, he competes in military, Paralympic, and U.S. Track and Field events, and will run the Boston Marathon this year. This, as he trains for the World Cup in flatwater sprint kayaking, and pushes to get kayaking included in the 2016 Paralympic Games. — Kurt Mullen
I guess the fact that vets can talk more openly on river trips has to do with the comfort zone, in that the river has an almost calming effect, like a Zen moment. Or maybe it’s like the age-old adage of what is said in this room stays in this room—but on the water.
The best overall was the Grand Canyon. I really didn’t want to come back to civilization. Life is so much simpler in the canyon.
Those who didn’t make it back are my main motivation to train and compete as hard as I do.
I definitely get a lot out of teaching. It helps me notice my own faults a lot more often than a person would normally.
Close calls on the river? Not really. I’ve always had someone out with me that I can count on.
The war has changed me. Just spending so much time in a place where the sand stretches for miles, as well as getting shot at or blown up on a regular basis. Now I value every day like it may be my last, so I take something more to the next day.
We occupied a house, and the tension was thick enough to slice a dull knife through. And then we came under fire with everything they could throw at us—AK-47s, RPKs [a machine gun], RPGs, grenades.
I tried to get up, but my right leg wasn’t responding. I felt something warm and sticky, and noticed the pool of blood that was around me.
Before I had gotten shot and lost the use of my leg, running was what I did to clear my mind. Over the course of the two years that the doctors were trying to save my leg I was lucky to find kayaking. It gave me that chance to clear my mind of anything and everything that was going on in my life.
They said they could fix it, so I gave them a shot. When I asked them to amputate they didn’t really argue. They were like, ‘Yeah, we should’ve done that in the first place.’
When I got back to Iraq and first stepped off of the bird, it was a surreal moment. I hadn’t imagined being able to go back as soon as I did. It felt the same as I had left it. There was still sand everywhere. It was still hot as hell. The same smell in the air.
We have fun with kids when we get out of our boats and they see that we’re missing limbs. We just point at the river and tell them about alligators or crocodiles or sharks or something.
Waiting to have my leg amputated was like approaching the lip of a waterfall. The adrenaline starts pumping. You don’t know how the landing is going to be even if you nail the boof, and when all is said and done you are either where you’re supposed to be or out of your boat.
All in all, I say that I stuck that landing pretty well.