Wounded veterans find multiple benefits from paddling on dragon boat teams
By Tom Vogt | The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash. | Published: May 22, 2013
VANCOUVER, Wash. — From the shore along Vancouver Lake, you can see ospreys slice through the sky, then suddenly wheel around and plunge toward a target in the water.
It's kind of like what Tony Davis did a few years ago, as a Navy helicopter crewman. His job could mean plunging into the sea as a rescue swimmer, or manning a machine gun as his helicopter swooped down to check out a possible threat.
Things changed when the La Center resident was driving home after finishing his Navy hitch. He was injured in an automobile accident in California.
"I wasn't supposed to walk again," Davis said recently on a dock at Vancouver Lake.
After a long struggle, Davis is walking again. And the lake is where he pursues another target in the water: the finish line.
Davis has become an accomplished rower, with ambitions of competing in the 2016 Paralympics, to be held in conjunction with the Summer Olympics in Brazil.
"When I was hurt, I still wanted to play sports," Davis said.
Through the military's Wounded Warrior program, he was introduced to several possibilities — including "adaptive" versions of basketball, swimming and volleyball. And then he discovered his sport.
"I found rowing," Davis said. "When I got on the water, it felt like I was on a helicopter again. It was like flying."
Now Davis, and some of the people who helped him, are hoping to get other injured and wounded veterans on the water. That concept has come together in a nonprofit group, Paddle for Life. The group will host a dragon boat festival Sunday at Vancouver Lake.
Elite and recreational teams will participate, but businesses, civic organizations and community groups will have a chance to put teams together and give the sport a try. Racing will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
There is no charge for spectators.
Proceeds will help Vancouver Lake Crew support a no-cost water sports program for disabled veterans. Another sponsor, Double Fifth Dragon Boating, is supplying the boats.
Dragon boating is a great way to get disabled veterans active again, said Jeff Campbell, owner of Vancouver-based Double Fifth. With crews ranging from 10 to 20 paddlers, the boats can re-create the sense of shared mission that is a big part of military life.
When a dozen veterans tried paddling during a demonstration in April, "they told us they miss that unit cohesion," Campbell said. (Another demonstration of dragon boating for disabled veterans is scheduled on June 29.)
Army veteran Melissa Kilgore said she particularly enjoyed that aspect of the April demonstration.
"Overall, the experience was great," Kilgore said. "I enjoyed the camaraderie. That's something you miss when you get out of the military. It's a chance to pull together and make it happen; when you're racing, you're working as a team to just glide across the water.
"It's great for people with significant injuries, and others like us with invisible injuries," Kilgore said.
The Portland veteran said she suffered a back injury and a neck injury, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder "and other stuff" during her four-year Army career as a logistics specialist.
While they would enjoy the camaraderie, veterans would find other benefits in the program, crew coach Alan Stewart said.
"When you get on the water, you find a real sense of freedom," Stewart said. "You're self-propelled, and to just be in a boat on the water is soothing."
When you decide you're ready to extend your physical capabilities, an oar or paddle can be as challenging as you make it, Davis said.
The 31-year-old veteran said he was in great shape as a 185-pound Navy rescue swimmer. After his stay in the hospital, he was down to 140 pounds. Davis worked hard to regain his ability to walk, and put in long hours in the gym to rebuild his muscles.
Rowing took that rebuilding process to another level.
"It was so tough on my body. My shoulders and back hurt so bad," said Davis, a 2000 graduate of La Center High School.
But the next time he'd put his boat in the water, "I was stronger."
Different veterans have different stories, Davis noted.
"I'm really competitive," Davis said, but most veterans won't be training to become world-class adaptive athletes.
While he is dealing with physical challenges, "a lot of veterans' disabilities are things you can't see," Davis said.
For those who have been dealing with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, "This still will be therapeutic," Davis said.