Skip to content

Paddling group brings hope and support to veterans

Brandon Wells

War destroys a lot of lives, and many of those lives are that of soldiers who are both physically and/or mentally affected by their experiences — Team River Runner aims to help fix that.

A national organization first formed in Washington D.C., Team River Runners primary mission is to aid veterans and their families with healing from trauma and/or injury and give them a place to belong where they can learn something new.

The St. Louis chapter of Team River Runner was the second chapter created after the initial one was created in 2004. The St. Louis chapter runs out of the St. Louis VA Medical Center.

Tom Cooke is a veteran and said he enjoys getting to work with others who share some of his experiences. Cooke said many of the reasons kayaking is used to help veterans is because of the teamwork and split-second decisions that are required to engage in whitewater kayaking and its resemblance to combat and camaraderie.

Cooke said one of his big reasons for trying to help his fellow veterans is to help those who have PTSD due to his own struggling with it.

Team River Runner itself was originally created to help veterans from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Cooke said the organization has evolved to the point of being made for all veterans, including those from the Vietnam War to now.

The group also specializes specifically in aiding disabled veterans by using specialized kayaks that are able to adapt to almost any physical disability. Recently, Cooke said he also learned how to take blind veterans kayaking.

“It takes two people to guide one blind person, so the person in front is gonna keep making [noise], I generally just say, ‘On me, on me,’ and you try to say it about every five seconds and they can follow your voice and hear you and stay in that direction,” Cooke said. “The person behind, what they’re going to do is that they’re going to yell out directions to them as far as ten-degree left [or] ten-degree right.”

While the focus of the group is on veterans, the organization also welcomes non-veterans and has numerous members and volunteers who aren’t veterans, including the original founder of the St. Louis chapter.

Kathy Pszonka, a non-veteran volunteer of the group for ten years, said she first got involved with the group due to her knowledge of some of the rivers in Arkansas where the group has their annual trip.

“I led them down the spring river and we had a lot of carnage, but we [also] had a lot of fun,” Pszonka said. “So after that when I retired I was able to practice with the veterans in the pool.”

Pszonka said her passion for kayaking makes being able to help veterans something she enjoys even more due to getting to indulge in her hobby. Safety and guidance are the primary duties of volunteers, but she said her previous career in nursing also contributes to their outings due to her keeping her nursing license updated.

Throughout her time with Team River Runner, Pszonka said she met a lot of different veterans from different wars and with different levels of combat experience.

“I remember one woman [and] she never knew how to swim and she wanted to kayak,” Pszonka said. “So I helped her learn how to swim and as an adult, that’s really hard to learn how to swim. Then she was able to get in a kayak and felt a lot more comfortable.”

Another volunteer, Craig Heaton is a veteran who is involved with various other paddling groups in the area, including the Mississippi Water Trail. At Team River Runner, Heaton said he serves a specific role when it comes to organizing the large annual trip to Arkansas the group has. 

Heaton said his involvement came at the request of Tim Phil, the head of the St. Louis chapter of Team River Runner, and that he believes the organization is good for many of the veterans that are a part of it.

“It is a way for veterans to get some physical therapy, but also, these guys in some cases don’t have much mobility at all and wouldn’t be experiencing any of the things that we take them out and do,” Heaton said. “It’s all about making veterans happy to live life and getting them active versus just [being] marginalized by their disability.”

To learn more about Team River Runner, visit their website.


Leave a Comment