Friday, July 27, 2007

Iraq war veterans gather for river trip

Post-war life to include journey on beautiful River of No Return

Express Staff Writer

Army Staff Sergeant Chad Jukes, 23, lost his right leg four months ago after a supply convoy truck he commanded struck a roadside improvised explosive device in northern Iraq. This week he is floating with other Iraq war veterans on the Salmon River. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Idaho wilderness could give a few veterans a different perspective this week.

"These trips give them a more positive outlook on life," said Wood River Ability Program Executive Director Mark Mast, who began working with Vietnam War veterans 25 years ago. The American Legion Hall in Ketchum hosted a banquet on Monday evening to welcome a group of recently disabled war veterans before they embark on a weeklong float trip on the Salmon River.

Mast organized the excursion in cooperation with the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and raised 70 percent of the funding for the trip through local donations.

"The government doesn't pay for these kinds of trips," Mast said. "They only pay for hospital stays."

The vets will spend this week navigating the main stem of the Salmon River through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area for five days. The river includes class III and IV rapids.

Since Mast started working with veterans, 120 of them have participated in summer and winter outdoor activities aimed at restoring self-confidence and promoting camaraderie. This week's trip list of 18 will include seven veterans and their families as well as two staff members and several civilian amputees.

Army Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes, 23, lost his right leg four months ago after a supply convoy truck he commanded struck a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) in northern Iraq.

Jukes was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he continues to receive treatment and rehabilitative services for the use of a prosthetic leg and foot.

Originally from Logan, Utah, Jukes began rock climbing and recently competed in the "Extremity Games" for amputees in Orlando, Fla. This week he is eager to go rafting with other members of the military and their families on the Salmon River.

"I'll be taking medical retirement, but it won't be easy. It's a phenomenal experience to work in Iraq around people 18 to 19 years old who will do anything over there to get the job done," he said. "I'm sorry I won't be there to make sure they are taken care of. I'd make sure they get a laugh in now and then because that's important."

Jukes and other participants in the Salmon River expedition found out about the Wood River Ability Program through "Operation Comfort," a volunteer network of psychologists and family counselors dedicated to working with U.S. war veterans.

"This is a great service," said Jukes. "It is real important in the rehabilitation process. It gets you out challenging yourself doing things you didn't think you could do."

Humvee Gunner and Staff Sgt. Deron Santini, 37, of Lafayette, La., will also join the group. He received head, neck and back injuries after his Humvee hit an IED in Iraq. After 13 years in the military he is 25 hours away from a college degree in criminal justice.

"All you hear about in the news is the negative," Santini said, "but I had people come up to me in Iraq and say, 'If it weren't for you being here, my family would be dead.'"

In addition to military patrols, Santini took part in food giveaways, helping out with schools and guarding gas stations.

"There are guys who will brag about how many of the enemy they have killed, but the truth is if you kill one or 100, that's one or 100 less that is going to kill you or your buddy," he said.

Also on the trip will be Josh Pappas, 21, and Dustin Fleming, 23. Both young men trained for three years together to become elite Reconnaissance Marines. They worked in small teams storming buildings and working in advance of larger military groups. Fleming was hit by a sniper bullet a few moths ago during an ambush southeast of Fallujah, but considers it a lucky shot.

"They are all lousy shots over there," he said.

Fleming was joined by his friend, Pappas, in the Fort Sam Houston hospital three months later after Pappas was badly burned by an explosion.

"This getting out together is really good," Pappas said. "You feel like you've left your buddies behind over there, and it's easy to get depressed. Interacting with other guys helps you feel better about what you did over there and gets you over the slump. It's good for stress."

Vietnam veteran and fellow Marine Dick Jackson, 70, welcomed Pappas, Fleming and the rest to the American Legion Hall banquet with garrulous conversation and questions about the latest military equipment.

"There's a connection that never goes away between Marines," Jackson said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine. There's a saying that if you die a Marine, you live forever."

The float trip will end next Tuesday at Tamarack Resort near McCall with a welcoming party in honor of the veterans.

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