The following is an essay by Wet Planet guide Ryan Copenhagen reflecting on his personal experience working with rafting clients from Fort Lewis, a US Army base south of Tacoma, Washington.
They arrive in a big blue bus, up to 50 of them at a time, ready to go rafting. They are U.S. Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, back from deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq. They come rafting on the mighty White Salmon River, as part of a program called Warrior Adventure Quest. The soldiers range broadly in age, rank, and background. The fun starts right away while teasing each other throughout the outfitting process. It is hard not to make fun of your friend when he’s wearing a purple wetsuit.
While there are obvious differences between the soldiers and guides, it is easy for us to get along. In a guiding season, we become remarkably close with our coworkers on the river because we have been through challenging and difficult situations together. Guides help each other when we sustain injuries, live for this camaraderie, and make fun of each other constantly. But like most Americans, we know little about the reality of combat.
The objective of Warrior Adventure Quest, according the briefing we received, is to: “Take action to assist self and buddies to build unit cohesion and mitigate stigma to seeking behavioral health assistance by fully participating in a high adventure activity.” What Battlemind, the Army’s premier psychological resiliency building program, tells us is that when soldiers return from combat, amounts of adrenaline are at a “new level of normal” which is lower than when employed in combat but higher than before deployment. Soldiers can have feelings of numbness, invincibility, and inevitability while reintegrating that can be the root of risky and destructive behavior, sometimes resulting in harm to themselves or people close to them. Studies have found that if soldiers channel their adrenaline while participating in positive stimulating experiences, like rafting or bungee jumping while reintegrating, they are less likely to harm themselves or others.
Our job as raft guides is to find common ground with our guests and facilitate an enjoyable adventure for them. With WAQ groups we can add elements of surprise to entertain adrenaline addicts that wouldn’t be as enjoyable for the general public. We are encouraged to emphasize teamwork and communication, elements that are natural while having fun on a river trip. Soldiers are given the chance to splash and have fun while working together; when given the opportunity to swim through a rapid they often take it. We get to put aside our differences and focus on helping the individuals. Soldiers have a unique way of speaking and answering questions. When I asked a group of men what they did, they said artillery, when I asked them to be more specific they said,
“Lets just say we could hit the port-a-potty at Wet Planet from Fort Lewis.”
I had nothing to say to that.
We have no idea what kind of horrific experiences these young men and women have been through and we don’t ask. But I must admit my curiosity got the best of me and I asked the guys in my boat if they were going to be deployed again. They all hoped that they would soon. As a raft guide I respect and admire them for their devotion to each other and to our country. I am humbled in their presence and honored to help them reintegrate by showing them a piece of the natural world that we should all fight to protect.
Ryan Copenhagen – professional whitewater rafting guide, trip leader and kayaking instructor at Wet Planet Whitewater in Husum, WA.