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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”