Healing Waters
As the longest war in U.S. history lingers on, veterans often return home to a face a different type of battle. Many find compassion, challenge, camaraderie, and a future in an unexpected place: on the water.
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We’re working together: civilians, guides, veterans. Just another group of paddlers exploring a narrow side-canyon, spotting one other as we scramble over boulders wedged between sandstone walls. When the gorge opens into a natural amphitheater we gather in the cool shade to hear tales of the expedition that put this river on the map. In 1869 John Wesley Powell, a Union major who lost his right arm at Shiloh, gathered a motley crew of mountain men including six other Civil War veterans to follow the Green River into the unknown.

Nearly 150 years later, Americans who served their country in war are again exploring these remote waters to navigate the unknown. There’s one key difference, and it’s not 21-foot oak dories being supplanted by rubber rafts and plastic kayaks. What has changed is that the peril they confront won’t be found on an uncharted river, but rather in the fully mapped society they are rejoining. The struggle to integrate back into this unknown is amplified for those whose injuries are less obvious than Powell’s missing arm.

Also, today’s veterans aren’t all men, and they’re not all young. Nor is their trauma always related to heroic combat with the enemy. Military service today is not a collective shared experience; it cannot be generalized. After three nights on the river, we only begin to scratch the surface. But as we splash through the rapids of Split Mountain Gorge, the conclusions are as obvious as the benefits of time spent engaged, connected to the moment, exploring both physical spaces and personal abilities, laughing as you pull a new friend into the raft or conquer your first rapid alone.

Then we exit the river and re-enter cell service. That small tether back to the connected unknown induces instant stress. I can no longer ignore those basic conclusions: that the long tail of mental trauma sustained from, or multiplied by, military service is more complex than we know; and, it is more worthy of our attention than ever as our post-9/11 ventures in the Middle East have seemingly no end in sight.

It’s especially worth exploring as paddlers, because immersion in these wild, sometimes ordinary, and often overlooked places matters. It can play a role that civilian paddlers take for granted. In the last year, C&K has continued scratching. We’ve connected with veterans from every corner of the country who have been transformed by the simple act of paddling. It has taught them what can work for us, because they are us. This is our salute to those who have found healing waters.

Exploring Winnie’s Grotto tucked in the Green River’s Gates of Lodore.

Twenty-two. The number has fixed itself into popular culture. From #22istoomany hashtags to viral 22-day pushup challenges, the number has been cited by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Robert Vessels

Twenty-two veteran suicides every day. Though that staggering statistic helps raise awareness of a serious issue, the number rankles many post-9/11 veterans. They point to a few obvious holes in the VA research that gave rise to the “22 a day” movement in 2012. For one, it is outdated (the VA’s most recent research suggests the daily number of veteran suicides is closer to 20). The research shows that most suicides involved older veterans who served in peacetime or prior wars (with an average male age of 60) and to muddy waters more, it failed to factor complete service records, as well as a handful of the largest veteran-populated states in the U.S. (including Texas and California).

Robert Vessels represents that vital missing cohort. He grew up in “George Bush Texas,” and enlisted in 2004, during his senior year of high school. Last year, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s in Middle East Studies. In between, Vessels served five years with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, including deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Vessels says his unit was lucky; despite seeing heavy combat in both theaters, his battalion lost only two soldiers in Afghanistan, and none in Iraq. Coming home, however, has been a different story.

“You get out of the military and you are just cut loose, flapping in the wind, no purpose, no idea of what to do next,” says Vessels, who found a way to reconnect with his love of the outdoors.

For Vessels, the number is 12.

“Since I got out in 2009, 12 Army buddies that I knew have died and almost all of those are from some sort of suicide, whether they killed themselves, overdose, or death by cop,” he says.

Vessels knows the road of social isolation that can turn lives into painful statistics. Following his service, Vessels went through a divorce, moved back in with his parents and spiraled into a “pretty deep depression,” bouncing around at dead-end retail jobs.

“You get out of the military and you are just cut loose, flapping in the wind, no purpose, no idea of what to do next,” Vessels says. Eventually, he followed an Army buddy to California. There he reconnected with peers and his love for the outdoors, ties he’s since leveraged into a job with the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors Program. Taking homeless veterans rafting on the South Fork American provided Vessels with a dramatic lesson in how even a single day on the water can boost a person’s well-being.

Truth in the ’22 a day' statistic?

On our trip down the Gates of Lodore, Vessels follows in the footsteps of fellow 10th Mountain Division veteran and former Sierra Club Director David Brower, who famously fought to keep this pristine stretch of high-desert whitewater flowing free. Vessels proves the wild river’s value in whole different way: by taking saliva samples. The hormone data he collects supports groundbreaking research into the wellness benefits of the outdoors by UC Berkeley, the Sierra Club and the Greater Good Science Center. The objective: to measure the physical and mental effects of whitewater rafting and “the emotion of awe.”

A year later, the not-so-surprising results only prove what has worked for Vessels: “Awe was shown to be a unique pathway to well-being in that it promotes curiosity about one’s physical and social environment, which in turn positively impacts social well-being,” the research paper concludes.

Vessels puts it in simpler terms. “It just helps you reset,” he says.

Vessels, exploring Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the Canning River. Photo: Julia Marshall
Paddling the calm waters, slowly re-teaching his left arm and hand to mimic the opposite side, Mitchell declares that something inside has awakened.

One head-scratching paradox of those veteran suicide statistics comes from last year’s analysis of 1.3 million post-2001 active-duty veterans. The results showed a much higher suicide rate among veterans who had not deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq than among those who had.

Andrew Mitchell’s service distanced him from more than the front lines. He grew up hearing tales of his father, a decorated Air Force pilot, flying missions to distant corners of the globe. When he enlisted in 2009, Mitchell ended up at Whiteman Air Force Base in the middle of Missouri based on the logic that a degree in filmmaking would carry over into Cyber Transport Systems. He felt isolated, from his home in Virginia, from his friends. He’d dreamed of running a fishing show one day; at Whiteman that ambition seemed out of reach.

Andrew Mitchell

On February 4, 2013, Mitchell shot himself in the head.

Seven weeks later he awoke from a coma, having miraculously survived the trauma to his brain. Three and half years later, Mitchell, 31, lives at home in his family’s suburban digs in Summerville, S.C. Due to seizure risk, Andrew can’t drive or be alone for more than hour. He lives under the constant watch of Dana, his stepmother and full-time caretaker.

On a sunny September morning, the pair arrive to the full-service disabled paddling facility at Charleston County’s James Island Park. Though he’s relearned to walk, he has trouble synchronizing the left side of his body, including his hand. Mitchell easily compensates for physical gaffes with a wit that fires on all cylinders, producing a near-constant barrage of movie references and one-liners.

When adaptive paddling instructor Seth Cantley asks about his risk for seizures on the water, Mitchell says that due to hypoxia his arms could seize, causing him to accidentally “high-five the Third Reich like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove.”

Advice for those at risk for suicide?

Mitchell then picks up a water bottle and says, “I couldn’t do this for a year.” Paddling instructor Joshua Hall helps him into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140 with inflatable outriggers and asks Mitchell if he’s feeling stable. “For once in my life,” he says, “Yes!”

After an hour of paddling out the calm waters, slowly re-teaching his left arm and hand to mimic the opposite side, steering under branches, enjoying the calm, Mitchell declares that something inside him has awakened. “I was just repeating Seth’s mantra: left stroke, right stroke, have fun.”

Recouping in the shade of the dock, Mitchell shares some hard-won wisdom. It’s advice that should stick at a time when suicide rates for everyone in the United States, while 50 percent higher for veterans than civilians, are at their highest levels in 30 years.

“You just need a battle buddy,” he says, noting how anyone at risk needs to start “going up the chain of command” with whatever network of support they have. Looking past his boat to the water, Mitchell says, “there’s always a silver lining. Always.”

Adaptive paddling instructor Seth Cantley leads Mitchell through the James Island County Park.
Annie Balthazar

Annie Balthazar found her own type of awe while paddling alone down the Mississippi River.

“It really just let me explode,” Balthazar says of the cathartic 103 days in 2015 during which she paddled her 13-foot solo canoe from the Big River’s Minnesota headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico.

She never had to justify or explain her emotions to anyone but the coyotes and the wildlife, she says. She encountered people along the way of course, tapping into a vast network of ‘river angels’ and spending time with friendly locals. “Meeting people on river restored my faith in humanity,” she says.

The goal is simple: Expose veterans to the sort of extended river trips that helped Balthazar find herself, and let them experience it on their own terms.

An interest in helping others and boosting her medical education is what led Balthazar to enlist in the Air Force in 1996. And though her service as a nurse anesthetist with 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing left her with few lasting physical wounds, the injuries that she did bring home were moral.

“Morals are what we think,” Balthazar says, “And I wasn’t allowed to think my own thoughts, have own opinions, or act the way I thought I should act.”

“Six months doesn’t sound long but it is when it’s 24-7,” says Balthazar, recalling vivid moments from the daze of activity: administering over 2,000 anesthetic treatments; working up to 48-hour shifts; managing two OR tables simultaneously; sleepless nights; and the surreal times spent on-call wearing a pager, a 9mm pistol and a flak jacket. She says she was simply too busy to report the harassment during a frenetic six-month deployment in 2005 at the Balad Air Base in Iraq. “Six months doesn’t sound long but it is when it’s 24-7,” says Balthazar, recalling vivid moments from the daze of activity: administering over 2,000 anesthetic treatments; working up to 48-hour shifts; managing two OR tables simultaneously; sleepless nights. At times while on-call she wore a pager, a 9mm pistol and a flak jacket. The base was shelled 106 times while she was there. Twice, she says, mortar rounds fell within 20 feet of her oxygen-rich emergency tent.

She treated American servicemen and Iraqis, from blindfolded and handcuffed insurgents to “civilians and children that were just collateral damage.” Once, she gave an IV to Saddam Hussein while the Ace of Spades was in custody prior to his trial by the Iraqi Interim Government. “All I saw was a human being that needed to be treated,” she says.

What's the biggest challenge in reintegration?

Soon after returning from Iraq, Balthazar realized she needed to start nurturing herself. She buried herself in work as a VA nurse anesthetist in San Francisco, struggling with “anger about the war, depression, darkness, helplessness, you name it,” she says. Balthazar resigned her commission, quit drinking and, after weathering a divorce, moved home to West Virginia. She met her current husband Ed near the New River Gorge, and the pair carved a homestead out of the woods on the outskirts of Fayetteville. With Ed’s encouragement, last year Balthazar walked away from her six-figure medical career to follow “the calling” she discovered while paddling the mighty Mississippi.

The day after she left the river, she began piecing together plans for a nonprofit. Eleven months later, Balthazar was leading a small group of veterans from the Mid-Atlantic down a 30-mile stretch of the South Fork Shenandoah. It was the last of five “test trips” she organized in the first season of her nonprofit, Paddle for Peace.

She intentionally picks calm and remote rivers, not only to accommodate never-befores, but also because “a lot of them have already feared for their lives, so they don’t need to be battling big rapids,” she says.

Her goal is simply to expose veterans to the sort of extended river trips that helped Balthazar find herself, and let them experience it on their own terms. “I’m just trying to figure out a way for me as one individual to make some kind of difference,” she says. “I’m trying to offer up what helped me in hopes of helping others.”

Balthazar, soaking in the calm waters of the South Fork Shenandoah.

There are plenty of reasons why Tom Bucci joined Balthazar’s trip on the Shenandoah.

Tom Bucci

One is anger. Bucci is the first to admit he’s got a lot of it. He logged 34 years in the Army, active and reserve, serving in 21 countries and collecting “more medals than a Mexican general.” The 53-year-old says that controlling his anger went a long way in sustaining his military career.

“This is where you get the greatest bang for buck. On these overnight trips when you are out all together in a group, you are all forced into the same mindset. People open up.”

“Anger helps make you a more fearless soldier, but I’ve seen in a lot of soldiers where that anger continues and it comes out in marriage, relationships, work, in little things,” he says, plugging short strokes on the Shenandoah. Weaving around the limestone ribs running across the broad riverbed, Bucci scans the riverbank and surrounding farm fields for heron. “Out here,” he says, “the bad mojo just starts draining away.”

Mojo is a better word for something a VA psychologist would call a disorder. To Bucci, stress is stress, whether you’ve served in the military or not.

“We’ve all had tough times in our life, but the more you say these stringent terms, ‘disorders’ or ‘trauma,’ the more people might feel sad for themselves,” ,” Bucci says, “To me they are growing experiences and they’ve got a lot to do with what made me who I am.”

Now Bucci volunteers to lead hiking and paddling trips at the VA hospital in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where he also works as an engineer for the facility. The Philly native likes to talk loud and paddle fast. The constant motion only helps ease nerves pinched and discs compressed in his paratrooper days. But for Bucci, it’s not the physical benefits that have kept him paddling over the years, bur rather the social intangibles of being unplugged.

Bucci, making smooth go fast on Virginia's South Fork Shenandoah.

“This is where you get the greatest bang for buck,” Bucci says. “On these overnight trips when you are out all together in a group, no distraction, no cable, no fantasy football. You are all forced into the same mindset, and you only have to think about and discuss what is around you. People open up.”

That camaraderie and the shared ability, as he puts it, “to embrace the suck” when reentry gets tough, is why Bucci believes trips like this should be mandatory for veterans readjusting to civilian life. Especially for the military cohort for whom suicide rates have risen the highest: women.

“Coming on a trip that’s nothing but men can be intimidating,” he says, noting that Balthazar could be the one to “crack the code” and get more women to join these multi-day trips. That night around the fire, Balthazar joins the banter even as the talk inevitably erodes into lewd territory of the male mind. The heavier discussions from earlier in the day tied to military service, such as the seemingly arbitrary PTSD disability ratings the VA had assigned each of the veterans, yield to lighter conversations. It’s the common river talk where regular strangers go to entertain and get to know one another: old stories, questionable jokes, stupid puns, talk of dogs, kids, life.

“I haven’t laughed this hard in years,” Bucci says in the fading fire.

Why do you paddle?
Nicholas Mavrogordato

At the time, Nicholas Mavrogordato wasn’t sure why he was alive.

On an infantry patrol in Afghanistan, Mavrogordato, aka Mav, cased the rugged volcanic terrain across an aqueduct. A Taliban fighter, undetected in the branches of an orange tree, “at the six,” no more than 20 yards directly behind Mav, emptied an entire magazine. “The guy has us dialed dead to rights,” recalls Mav, who dove into the aqueduct, where both he and his team miraculously avoiding the barrage of bullets.

That was 2006. “Wild days” as Mav understates, when the vast bulk of the U.S. military’s air assets, infrastructure and support were focused elsewhere, in Iraq. Mav’s battalion deployed with no clear mission, spending days attaching to a hodgepodge of Coalition special force units from around the globe, broadly tasked with clearing the mountainous region’s verdant valley strongholds of fighters. “No bullshit real-deal very intense pitch[ed] battles,” Mav describes, “like old-school Vietnam.”

Baghdad was different.

There he advised a retrofitted U.S. artillery battalion to conduct complex and coordinated night raids throughout the city.

Though he somehow avoided a single firefight, the patrols, nine months spent kicking down doors, began to take a different toll. “You’re really ruining these guys’ lives,” Mav began to realize. He became further disenchanted knowing many of the “middle men” he helped capture were Shia, not linked with the supposed enemy, Al Qaeda. “What’s the point? This guy’s not a terrorist, he’s doing what he’s got to do to feed his kids.”

So though he had qualified to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment, Mav instead took his honorable discharge in 2009 to pursue a college degree. Or so he thought. The transition to academics was too abrupt. Mav left school behind and found his calling in the West, in that intangible feeling of spending time out of doors.

Part of the reason the lows were so low were because the highs were so high, memories of service playing out like any boy’s G.I. Joe fantasies.

“It was that stoke after a great ski day or ripping fish all day, out there in a headlamp throwing mice pattern with your boys, like this is it, this is why we are here, this is America.”

The natural highs didn’t always last. “Even though it was right there, I would lose it,” Mav says. Finding money to make the dream work became an issue. And though he had dealt with some depression prior to his service, afterward the lows went much lower. He recalls days spent “literally incapacitated to the point that you can’t even move.”

In those darkest moments, he says, “I got close.” Close, that is to becoming one of those terrible statistics. Mav found a reason to stay alive: his golden retriever, Buddy. “I didn’t, because I was his dad,” he says simply.

Buddy stuck with Mav as he continued drifting. The pair headed down to the bayous, where Mav found work on an offshore Louisiana oil rig. The easy going smooth-talker with a gift of rapid-fire gab and a penchant to go deep in conversations stuck out from the rest of the roughnecks.

How did you get through the low points?

“For six months they thought I was a corporate spy, reading The Economist in the galley,” he says. When the price of oil took a nosedive, Mav’s company went under. He hit another low in Lake Charles, La., framing houses.

Part of the reason the lows were so low were because the highs were so high. The memories of Mav’s service play out like any boy’s G.I. Joe fantasies: “You’re fully kitted up with equally intelligent alpha guys and creeping through the streets under night vision, you’ve got NSA aircraft giving you cell phone signals on the guys you’re going to hit,” he describes. “It’s testosterone max.”

After a call from his parents to return closer to their home in coastal South Carolina, Mav again found his calling near the water, and a whole different type of energy.

“There’s a solace and calmness, a clarity that comes with being on the water,” he says. “It different than being in the mountains, there’s some sort of luna, feminine kind of warmth from the water.”

In short, Mav puts it, “Savannah saved my life.” The journey home routed him and Buddy to low-country wilds of Tybee Island, Georgia, where he found work as a bartender and chanced into a guiding position at Sea Kayak Georgia.

Mav, navigating the marshland maze in the low-country wilds off Georgia’s Tybee Island.

The bliss from the water, the sun setting across the maze of marshes, catching redfish on the flood tide—those things provided the perfect counterbalance to nights working behind the bar.

“The bar setting is a lot of posturing and a lot booze, lot of glad-handing, frankly a lot of bullshitting,” he says. “And then you get out there, and that’s the truth.

“Every time you get off the water you feel good.”

Epic is a relative term for Russell Davies.

As a young kayaker recently returned from a combat deployment in Afghanistan, both of his first attempts to kayak off waterfalls ended in ways that would ordinarily qualify them as total epics. During one, a shot at Oregon’s Bridal Veil Falls, the trip ended in an elaborate rope-system rescue and emergency extraction after a member of his paddling crew slipped off the steep approach and impaled his leg on a rock. In the other, a 2011 attempt to paddle the punishing 60-foot right side of Lower Mesa Falls not far from his home town of Pocatello, Idaho, Davies watched a friend break his back “very savagely,” upon impact below the falls, forcing their crew to mobilize and mount another sustained rescue effort.

“Veterans need to branch out and seek adventure through action sports to get that fix: that high-adrenaline, raw heart-pounding uncertainty.”

Many paddlers would have abandoned steep and technical whitewater paddling forever.

Out of the military at 23, Davies’s five years of infantry service in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division—punctuated by one “pretty chaotic” day in particular—recalibrated how he processed epic days. During a 2010 patrol through the Ghazni Province of southern Afghanistan, an IED detonated underneath Davies’s Humvee, flipping the truck and triggering what he describes as a “complex ambush.” Davies suffered head trauma and two compressed vertebrae in the explosion, and his platoon sergeant was seriously wounded. The blur of his actions that day, for which he received a Commendation Medal with Valor, left Davies with memories loaded with emotion from that heightened situation. Not all of it was negative. He returned home itching for an outlet offering the same kind of challenge.

Russell Davies / Photo: Seth Dahl

So at the base of the falls, Davies immediately recognized something in those tense must-act moments where you depend on your wits, your training and your team. “It actually lit a fire inside,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what I feel helps, what I need, and what my life will ultimately become involved with.’”

With those basic bearings, he stuffed the car full of gear and made the extended vagabond move to the Columbia River Gorge where he met plenty of other like-minded paddlers, and even a fellow purple-heart creekboater in Alexander Morton.

“I got to talk to him about some of our friends in the military struggling drastically,” Davies says. “I’ve had two friends who have taken their lives and we got to discussing our situation where we’d found that passion that had become our compass in life.”

At home in Idaho. Photo: Seth Dahl

Those conversations with Morton lit another fire. Davies decided to share what he learned by launching a nonprofit called Professional Transformation Sports Development (PTSD). The goal, Davies says, is simple. “Veterans need to branch out and seek adventure through action sports to get that fix: that high-adrenaline, raw heart-pounding uncertainty that you’ve been trained to do for four to five years of active-duty military service in third-world countries where the fight is real.”

Five years after the Mesa Falls ‘epic,’ Davies realizes the challenges ahead, most especially in outreach. He knows that to enable an awakening—one that could potentially become part of a new identity—you have to reach beyond physical injuries.

“You lose a leg or an arm, that’s something that’s altogether inspirational as far as adapting and overcoming that physical injury,” he says. “But I think the real issue that is lurking is the mental side of all this.”

Davies, recently running Metlako Falls on Oregon’s Eagle Creek. Photo: Zach Doleac

Know a veteran who has made a difference in the paddling community? Email letters@canoekayak.com, and head to CANOEKAYAK.com/healingwaters as we present expanded interviews from our collection of veteran-paddler profiles we will be debuting over the next year.

Ryan Carroll / Dan Anderson / Sandra Fredrickson / Robert Doshi
Ed Evangelidi / Lauren Francis / David Bradbury / Garrett Combs