David Walas looked like everyone else in the crowd of kayakers, though he was slightly less stable on the water than the experts teaching him paddling techniques on the Congaree River on Monday night.
The only hints that anyone in the group was different might have been Walas prosthetic lower legs propped up against a tree.
Thats the beauty of Team River Runner, a nonprofit group formed to teach military veterans how to whitewater kayak.
I told him were going to get one of those handicapped stickers to put on his kayak and put a line through it, said Scott Adams, one of the leaders of the local Team River Runner chapter, because when he gets in the boat, it doesnt matter if he doesnt have legs. Hes like everybody else.
Walas, who drove down from Tega Cay for several lessons in the Jeep Rogers YMCA pool earlier in the year, said he already feels like hes part of the local kayaking community.
Ive made some pretty neat friends in Columbia, and Im still really a baby in it, said Walas, a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran. Its going to take time. I could use a whole week down here.
Walas is the local Team River Runner chapters star student. Most of the dozen or so younger vets who have signed up have shown up sporadically. Many have post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Their lives are complicated, and kayak practice isnt a priority.
But maybe it should be. One of the major PTSD and TBI coping strategies suggested by Veterans Administration physicians is to distract yourself with recreational activities. Team River Runner fits that description.
The nonprofit was founded in 2004 in the Washington, D.C., area with the goal of helping active-duty service members and veterans find healthy, healing and new challenges through paddle sports. Its not specifically for disabled vets; any vet or active duty service member can sign up. The Columbia chapter formed this year and is the first in South Carolina.
Adams heard about Team River Runner in 2009 during a whitewater instructors class and started trying to form a local chapter. He had trouble making the right contacts with local VA officials. Then one of his former students hooked him up with Karl Chapman, who had the same goal and had better VA contacts. Even before the VA approved their plans, Adams and Chapman had lined up local kayakers willing to teach and loan their equipment.
The Palmetto Paddlers, a local outdoors group, agreed to share their rented pool time with Team River Runner for the first training sessions with a handful of veterans. With each training session, a few more veterans would show up. Some found out about it from VA physicians, others, like Walas, from the Team River Runner website.
We did it all with volunteer equipment at first, Adams said. We have to crawl and walk before we can run. We have gear on order now from the national office.
The pool sessions started with the basic safety tips, then instructions on how to hold a paddle and how to pull the kayak skirt closed. Most novices looked shaky for the first few minutes, but they quickly got the hang of keeping the tippy boats balanced and propelling themselves with simple strokes.
Then they began roll training. Their first step was to hold onto the side of the pool and twist their hips to flick the boat up on its side. That hip movement is the key to rolling back over if you flip a kayak. Its all about having loose but strong hips and using the correct paddle stroke.
When Walas showed up for a pool session, his enthusiasm immediately impressed the instructors. After only a couple sessions, they nominated him for one of Team River Runners national trips, and he was selected for a trip on the Salmon River in Idaho in September.
Walas never has let his war injuries stop him from leading a full life. He had been in Vietnam just four months when he stepped on an explosive device while on Army patrol in the jungle.
We didnt have a medic, he said. It was 45 minutes to wait for the chopper and 45 minutes to get back to the hospital. Fortunately, I didnt go into too much shock.
After spending a year in hospitals while his wounds healed, he grew frustrated with physical therapists and taught himself to walk on his prosthetic legs. The next summer, he backpacked across Europe.
He spent much of the 1970s doing what people did in the 70s, he said with a chuckle. When he finally landed a job at the post office, he usually rode his bike 30 minutes each way to work. He still rides a bike often and does distance wheelchair training.
He had done some flatwater kayaking, but always wanted to try the more thrill-seeking whitewater version. After a few pool training sessions, he ventured out on open water on the Broad River during the River Rocks Festival. He did what many first-time paddlers do stayed in the boat all the way, then fell in the water as he tried to get out of the boat at the shore.
Walas discovered he doesnt feel right kayaking with his prosthetic legs on. Adams rigged a custom bulkhead and inflatable pillow, allowing Walas to fit snuggly in the kayak without his prosthetics.
Were still trying to get the setup right, Walas said.
The custom bulkhead gives him a better feel for the boat, but he still hasnt completed a roll. It was progress Monday night for him to practice his first wet exit when the kayak flips and you have to swim out of it rather than flip it back up without his prosthetics.
But he is determined to learn to roll, which would be essential for him to make the Salmon River trip in a kayak.
They say I can do it rafting or in an inflatable (kayak), Walas said, but I want to be in my own boat.