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Mindful : February 2015
This g roup wouldn’t seem to be a n exception. The Tuolumne journey features several Class IV rapids in addition to the Class V rapids at Clavey Falls. (The Internationa l Scale of River Difficulty lists only six classes of rapids, with Class VI “rarely attempted.”) But the veterans on this trip are apparently not satisfied with this degree of risk. At one point, several of them, including Dawn Marie, with her colostomy bag a nd weak knee, head ashore to climb a 20-foot rock ledge from which they leap into the water. At another, they turn their rafts straight back into a rapid called Surf City, in a maneuver known as “surfing.” They appear undeterred by the guides’ warnings of the risks of falling out. And sure enough, as the tip of one boat flies up against a wave, Aaron Tozier topples into the water. All you see for one alarming instant is his bare foot in the air. All four rafts speed toward him at once, but it’s Danny Martinez who gets there first, throwing himself across his boat to grab Tozier a nd pull him up by his vest. Tozier is 6-foot-4; Mar tinez 5-foot-7. Martinez seems galvanized. Tozier’s leg is bleeding, a nd he has lost both of his shoes, but is otherwise unha rmed. “ I owe you one, man!” he shouts to Martinez, who grins his new grin once again. Scenes like this reveal the skillfulness of the adventure-and-emotional therapy formula offered by Lesser and Fortin, a combination that in past years, in different inca rnations, has been used with troubled teenagers, a nd now is becoming increas- ingly popula r for vets. It’s striking how the rafters snap back so quickly into working as a team, responding to orders and looking out for each other. Their bravery on the rafts also carries over to their g roup conversations, as, revealing their struggles, they repeatedly discover that they’re not alone. “It’s really exactly like the military,” says Arana, Wednesday evening, as the vets sit in their circle of camp chairs in the sand, and a nearly full moon rises over the canyon. “In the military, we learned to trust in the equipment. Here, you may get a nxious but you have that trust factor of the equipment and the guide. So you get into that mode and you hear the commands and trust it’ll come out okay.” Arana tells the group: “I took a chance this year, taking what I’ve learned and saying I needed help. Even though I came with a smiley face, it was hard. But you know what?” He raises his hand in the air. “I’m weak. And once you can say that, the healing begins.” Wachenheim, the army reser ve major from North Dakota, whom everyone, by now, is calling “Fargo,” speaks haltingly at first as she tells the group that the pine trees on the riverbank remind her of the beauty of Afghanistan. Baring her heart doesn’t come naturally; throughout the trip, she has preferred to crack jokes and splash other raf- ters with her paddle. “I’m ashamed of what we did do and I’m ashamed of what we didn’t do,” she says of her war experience, holding her knee to try to stop its jiggling. “But this is the first time since I’ve gotten back that I remember something good about Afghanistan. This trip, and all of you, provide me with hope.” Norma Martinez, another active major, in the US Army Reserve (and no relation to Danny) smiles at Wachenheim and tells the group: “Cheryl told me this morning, ‘I don’t want everybody to know I’m crazy.’ I told her, ‘Don’t worry. Everybody already knows you’re crazy. And we’re all crazy.’” At moments like these, the word “disorder” seems particularly wrong to describe what these veterans a re experiencing. Their responses to what they have experienced instead appea r abundantly huma n, which helps explain why many milita ry leaders have recently begun to drop the “D ” f rom PTSD. On Thursday, the group has to wait until after noon for the water release from upriver. There are nine more miles to go, including four more Class IV rapids, with names like Thread the Needle, Hell’s Kitchen, and Pinball. But in the last few miles of the journey, before the river widens at the opening to the Don Pedro Reser voir, the la ndscape looks a lot less charred. Drought-hardy chaparral shrubs a nd vines—manzanita and toyon, as well as poison oak and blackberry—ma ke patches of green on the riverside. Dragonflies gleam above the water, a nd Nash, the guide, points out a bald eagle, sitting in a bra nd-new nest in a pine tree. → HPW cofounder Lee Lesser plans to publish a guide with cofounder Chris Fortin to help other groups replicate the program. February 2015 mindful 49 veterans