Sports & Outdoors

'Moving is living' -- Blind veterans find inspiration through paddling in the Keys

Retired U.S. Army Spc. Steve Baskis demonstrates specially adaptive equipment he uses when paddling. Baskis lost his eyesight in a roadside bomb attack in 2008.
Retired U.S. Army Spc. Steve Baskis demonstrates specially adaptive equipment he uses when paddling. Baskis lost his eyesight in a roadside bomb attack in 2008.

Steve Baskis was a 22-year-old U.S. Army infantryman on special assignment working a security detail for a brigadier general in Iraq eight years ago.

Today, the retired specialist is blind, has no sense of smell and qualifies for a hearing aide in his left ear.

The lifelong athlete's world transformed in a flash while coming back from an assignment in a town north of Baghdad on May 13, 2008. The vehicle in which Baskis was traveling struck a roadside bomb, killing his friend and colleague, Staff Sgt. Victor Cota, 33.

"He died pretty much instantly," Baskis said Wednesday while sitting on a picnic bench at Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo.

Baskis was knocked unconscious. He remembers waking up days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., with his family by his side. Shrapnel from the bomb ravaged Baskis. He had shards in his face, arms and legs. His Kevlar helmet spared him from more damage to his head.

"I was 22 years old and in a second, things changed," Baskis said. "You have to relearn how to live."

Retired U.S. Army Col. Kathryn Champion, 52, had a long career of service before she, too, lost her sight in the line of duty. Asked where she served, Champion replied:

"Iraq, Afghanistan and a few others I can't talk about."

She was wounded in a bomb blast in 2006 while commanding a civil affairs unit. But that didn't knock her out of the conflict. She continued to lead her all-male unit in challenging combat conditions during the height of the insurgency.

But the Iraq war waited for Champion, who lives in Gulf Port, Fla., to come home before hitting the 28-year veteran with the cruelest blow -- a virus contracted from the desert sands that took her eyesight in one eye, then the other.

Today, rather than let her disability limit what she can do, Champion uses her blindness as a vehicle to accept new challenges. Her goal now?

"The 2-2-6," she said without hesitation.

That is the 226 miles of the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon. "I want to be the first blind female to go down it," she said.

She means in a kayak. Champion, Baskis and 14 other blind veterans came to the Keys this week with a nonprofit that helps wounded service members by introducing them to the world of paddle sports.

Team River Runner was co-founded by now Executive Director Joe Mornini in 2004 at Walter Reed. Mornini, now 63, was too old to serve in the military after 9/11. When wounded soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen began showing up at Walter Reed, Mornini was looking for a way to serve them.

"I just wanted to do something," he said.

Team River Runner volunteers began putting wounded veterans in kayaks in the pool at Walter Reed. Now there are 51 chapters in 30 states taking veterans, both physically wounded and those suffering from post-traumatic stress, on paddling excursions in places like the Grand Canyon, the Potomac River, the ocean in San Diego, Calif., and through the mangroves of the Upper Keys.

The goal is to get the men and women motivated to get moving and out of the morass that often comes with becoming disabled. To people like Baskis, who was athletic before being wounded, paddling is one of the best therapies for his condition.

"A lot of guys go home and sit down, and I guess they give up. But moving to me is living," he said. "I feel the water and everything underneath me, and I'm moving."

On Wednesday, the men and women paddled through the scenic John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Although Team River Runner helps all wounded veterans, this tour, dubbed the Outta Sight Clinic, is specifically tailored for blind veterans, which is a significant segment of the men and women who've fought in recent conflicts.

Although many veterans suffer amputations and paralysis, the top four disabilities affecting returning service members are post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and, finally, loss of visual acuity, or blindness.

Team River Runner helps wounded veterans through donations and innovations from people like Kevin Carr, whose organization Creative Ability builds adaptive paddling equipment that enables those with even the most severe disabilities to get on the water.

In the Keys, people like Jamie Jackson of Florida Bay Outfitters further the mission. Jackson is a kayaking guide, but he's also an American Canoe Association-certified adaptive equipment instructor. Basically, he's trained to adapt different equipment to different injuries.

"With all the great body armor we have now, the guys are coming back with scrambled heads and missing limbs," Jackson said.

But even with the best creative equipment out there, it takes perseverance on the veterans' behalf to make it on the water.

"You're only as disabled as you want to be," Baskis said.

Those aren't just words to the former grunt. Baskis, who lives in Central Illinois, is a true adventurer. He, like Champion, plans to paddle through the rapids of the Grand Canyon. And he's also an avid skier and mountain climber who has ascended two of the world's seven summits. Baskis is determined to climb Mount Everest.

"My goal is to see the world," he said. "I'm not going to let blindness slow me down."

Support appreciated

Team River Runner couldn't do what it does without the generosity of donors. And the people, businesses and clubs in the Keys come through year after year for the group, as well as other veterans charities.

Mornini's budget for this year's trip was just $6,000. That money came from one donor the day before Mornini flew to Florida, rented a van and drove throughout the state to pick up the veterans.

Six grand is barely enough for a family of four to vacation in the Keys, let alone 16 people.

That's where operations like Florida Bay Outfitters come in. The business provided boats and guides to the veterans each day for free.

The Key Largo Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Elks Club and the Pilot House Restaurant fed the group at no charge. And Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo invited the veterans to swim at no charge with its sea mammals.

For more information on Team River Runner, go to www.teamriverrunner.org. Baskis also has a nonprofit aimed at helping returning veterans through outdoor activities, Blind Endeavors. For more information, go to www.blindendeavors.org.

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