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Veterans celebrate life during Utah river adventureVeterans celebrate life during Utah river adventure

Fourteen combat veterans and five pilots laughed, cried, hugged, and rediscovered joy during a four-day rafting adventure through Utah’s Gates of Lodore, a series of whitewater rapids along the wild and scenic Green River.

Pilots Gary Black, Dennis Haber, and Gregg Guider join military veterans after an OARS whitewater rafting trip to Vernal, Utah, organized by Cirrus pilot Tim Valentine as a means to salute them for their service. Photo by David Tulis.

The trip, the dream of Cirrus SR22 pilot Tim Valentine, was designed to help military veterans, many among them decorated for heroic acts and wounds suffered on distant battlefields, rediscover their younger selves, and—at least for a few days—forget horrors they had witnessed in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq.

It became a healing experience for all involved. Valentine died in an aircraft accident just weeks before the trip, and his friends Michael Hall and Mark Larkin picked up the pieces amid their grief. The two of them along with Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association members Dennis Haber, Ken Kirby, and Gregg Guider (also an Embraer Phenom 100 pilot) carried on in Valentine’s honor. 

The Green River was surveyed in 1869 by John Wesley Powell, who lost part of an arm due to a war injury. The swift-moving river is filled with Class II to Class IV rapids that etch a whitewater pathway from Wyoming’s Wind River Range through parts of Colorado and Utah, alongside the Dinosaur National Monument’s remote canyons. Rock as ancient as 1.3 billion years old stands stoically under a bright blue sky. Ruby red rock cliffs topped with tan sandstone that is relatively young at 500 million years old make one feel small and insignificant.

Sean Sorrin of OARS guided the whitewater journey through an upturned behemoth called Split Mountain Canyon, which gave way to the rumbling S.O.B. rapids. Triplet Falls, Hell’s Half Mile, and Lower Disaster Falls challenged even the stoutest among the group venturing through the Gates of Lodore. At least two had an unplanned swim in the 50-degree Fahrenheit torrent of water flowing at 2,500 cubic feet per second.

OARS guide Sean Sorrin paddles military veterans Michael Hall, Bill Johnson, and Mike Dante on the Green River near Vernal, Utah, in Dinosaur National Monument park. Photo by David Tulis.

The veterans and Cirrus pilot Gary Black easily tackled an adventure swim to a midriver rocky triangle, but I thought I was going to die. The current snatched my legs and threw me downstream, while the cold clutched at my muscles that were already tense with effort. Shouts of encouragement to “dig, swim hard, don’t stop, you can do it!” helped me prevail and build a bond with the group.

Black said the river was “much more challenging” than he expected “and the adventure swim was a real eye opener.” The U.S. Navy F–14 radar intercept officer during the Cold War said he had “the greatest respect” for the 20-, 30-, and 40-year-olds on the trip. “These guys were out in the field and in the cities and people were shooting back all the time. They’ve been carrying the load the last two decades.”

New and enduring bonds

Valentine had taken Hall up in his Cirrus numerous times after Hall, an Army tank commander, was seriously injured and burned. An electronically fired penetrator (EFP) pierced his Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a mission in Baghdad in 2005. Quick-witted and lanky, Hall became emotional as he recalled his treatment for burns and post-traumatic stress, and the loss of his turret man, a scene that he still can’t shake more than 10 years later. It hit between the second and third road wheel underneath the side skirts and came all the way through and hit my turret. It punctured both fuel cells and ignited,” Hall recalled. “I lost a gunner and the rest of my crew was covered in fuel, and it ignited. We had a fire, but we got everybody out.”

Hall doesn’t mention that he was walking beside the tank when the EFP struck or that he ran toward the inferno to help save the lives of his men. His crew sustained “at least 20 percent total body thickness burns, so we’ve all had some skin grafts.” Despite their efforts, Hall’s gunner died about three weeks later and Hall severely injured his head during the extraction. He still suffers from occasional bouts of vertigo and wonders what else he could have done to save his men.

Unit buddy Michael Dante reunited with Hall on the rafting trip even though the two servicemen hadn’t seen each other for several years. Both had trouble wiping the chaos from their memories. The whitewater adventure was designed to help them—and a dozen more servicemen with similar stories—let go of the past and focus on the future, and on life. Near the end of the trip Hall and Dante walked arm in arm through the Green River shallows.

Haber, a Navy veteran who served during Vietnam, said joining the military was an honor but also carried “a lot of confusion”; service personnel did “a lot of growing up” while on duty. “Veterans are admired but many are not understood,” and some are left with the feeling that “the world is not a perfect place. A trip like this provides a sense of perspective.”

Hall anticipated “a handful of relationships” would be built during the adventure, “and that’s really neat to watch.” The bonds made during the whitewater trip blossomed into friendships that spanned thousands of miles and different walks of life.

Kirby and Army Sgt. Maj. Bill Johnson formed one such bond. Kirby flew Johnson to Utah from Fort Worth, Texas. “He’s a career Army guy, and we became friends already. We camped out next to each other and we’re doing a lot of stuff together, so I know I already made a friend for the rest of my life, with Bill.”

Johnson said he had “never been in an airplane that small,” but had a “great flight” in Kirby’s Cirrus SR22. He spent “about 30 years” in the Army and was the top enlisted man for ground forces in Afghanistan. He was also deployed to Iraq three times. “Probably the worst” fighting “was my second rotation in Iraq called the surge, outside of Sadr City” on the outskirts of Baghdad. “We had about 98 killed in action and about 2,300 wounded.” He retired in 2014 and now leads the First Command Educational Foundation, an outreach organization that helps military veterans pursue higher education. A highlight of the adventure “was just meeting all these different folks and talking to them. It’s been a great time.”

While serving in Iraq, Shawn Day hobbled through 30 days of ground fighting after he crushed his kneecap during an ambush until he was ordered to the hospital and sent stateside. Day sports a red and blue U.S. flag tattooed on his arm and a military insignia across his broad shoulders. He preferred to paddle a two-person raft solo. The retired infantryman is tough, but he showed a heart of gold and was quick to support others on the journey. His current mission is helping military veterans with outreach, and in his spare time he participates in rodeos.

A few months after the trip, Haber flew his Cirrus SR22 from South Florida to Topeka, Kansas, to cheer Day on during the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association’s championship. Haber said all he needed was a “reasonable excuse” to fly his Cirrus to maintain their bond: “It's all about the adventure of going places that you can, but never thought you would.”

  • Military veteran Shawn Day paddles with Cirrus pilot Dennis Haber. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Embraer Phenom 100 pilot Gregg Guider and Cirrus pilot Gary Black helped bring 14 military veterans to Vernal, Utah, for a Green River whitewater trip to help the service personnel renew friendships and to help them heal. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Former infantrymen Ian Larkin and John Gasko join Embraer Phenom 100 pilot Gregg Guider and Cirrus pilot Gary Black (not pictured) on a general aviaiton flight to Vernal, Utah. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Military veterans Bill Johnson and Shawn Day tackle the rapids along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Rafters paddle past Split Mountain, an upturned geologic marvel on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Stars appear over the Green River in the Gates of Lodore, near Vernal, Utah, during a river rafting adventure for combat veterans. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Military veterans and general aviation pilots raft past a Dinosaur National Monument rock formation on the Green River near Vernal, Utah. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Cirrus pilot and retired U.S. Navy serviceman Dennis Haber relaxes on the Green River, in Utah. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Military veteran Mark Larkin gets emotional thinking about his friend, pilot Tim Valentine, who organized and funded a Green River, Utah, whitewater rafting adventure to salute service personnel. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Military veterans and Bradley tank unit members Michael Hall, right, and Mike Dante put aside their combat trauma to share a smile during a Green River whitewater rafting adventure organized by a Cirrus pilot. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Bill Johnson takes a waterfall photo with Cirrus pilot Ken Kirby, who flew Johnson to the Green RIver for a Utah rafting adventure. Retired U.S. Navy and Cirrus pilot Gary Black watches, left. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Campfires aren't allowed along the Green River in Utah during peak fire season so a red LED light suffices for military veterans and general aviation pilots experiencing the scenic Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by David Tulis.
  • General aviation pilots helped bring 14 military veterans to Vernal, Utah, for a Green River whitewater trip to help the service personnel renew friendships and to help them remember how to celebrate life. Photo by David Tulis.
  • OARS guide Kyle Waller powers through the rapids during a whitewater rafting adventure for servicemen organized by pilot Tim Valentine, who died in an aircraft accident just weeks before the Utah adventure began. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA Associate Editor David Tulis and Embraer Phenom 100 pilot Gregg Guider join 14 military veterans for a Green River whitewater trip. Photo by David Tulis.
  • After negotiating the 44-mile stretch of the Green River known as the Gates of Lodore, military veterans and pilots salute trip organizer Tim Valentine, who died in a general aviation aircraft accident just weeks before the Utah adventure began. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Military veteran John Gasko thanks pilot Gary Black after a whitewater rafting outdoor adventure organized by Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association member Tim Valentine. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The late Cirrus pilot Tim Valentine, right, funded a river adventure trip for military veterans. He died in an aircraft accident just weeks before the trip. Photo courtesy of Dennis Haber.
David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, Pilots, US Travel

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