Having the Freedom to Row To Recovery

by Ed Moran, | Jul 10, 2015
Robert McRae was just 23 when he landed in San Francisco. He had just spent three years flying photographic reconnaissance missions with the U.S. Navy over the South China Sea during some of the most violent years of the Vietnam War.
pinRobert McRae was just 23 when he landed in San Francisco. He had just spent three years flying photographic reconnaissance missions with the U.S. Navy over the South China Sea during some of the most violent years of the Vietnam War.

During one of those missions in 1966, he was changing out camera equipment when the pilot had to suddenly dive to avoid anti-aircraft fire. McRae was thrown violently to the deck and severely injured his leg.

The plane returned safely to base, but McRae was evacuated and spent 100 days in an Army Medical Evacuation Hospital. He was able to finish his enlistment, but on limited duty status and in pain. When he walked out of the San Francisco airport, he was met by a group of young people who told him they where there to take him to his destination.

“They said they were there to welcome returning service members,” he said. “And they led me to a bus. The next thing I know, they had driven me into the desert and put me off the bus and told me to find a bus stop.”

He was pushed and yelled at and spit on, he said. “I returned to a very angry environment. The Vietnam War was extremely unpopular, and I guess they thought they could take it out on the boy next door. We were the only ones they could reach.”

McRae ditched his Navy dress blues, grew his hair out and went to school for eight years. He studied political science, got a job working with the Denver City Council, then had a career in banking, but found he couldn’t hold down a job for very long.

“I went through 28 jobs,” he said. “It’s hard to hold a job when you’re screaming at the bank president.”

He was also on constant pain medication and, as he puts it, “self medicating. I ballooned up to over 300 pounds. I didn’t know what post traumatic stress disorder was and if you told me what it was, I would tell myself I didn’t have it.”

McRae finally checked himself into the Denver VA facility in 2013 and spent 49 days in a PTSD program. From there, he went to the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado.

“They told me one of the things I needed to do is exercise. They had these rowing machines, Concept2s, and there was a vet there who had lost his leg and he was encouraging me to row with him.”

McRae bought in and joined a group of vets who were participating in the Concept2 Military Challenge through the Longmont Sculling Club as part of the USRowing’s Freedom Rows initiative.

McRae, who is now 69, and three other vets, finished 19th overall, beat the Naval Academy team, and McRae lost 75 pounds.

“It was a terrific feeling,” McRae said. “Freedom Rows changed my life. I’m a pretty buffed up guy from where I started.”

freedom2McRae is just one example of what USRowing hopes to accomplish through its Veteran’s
Administration grant of $250,000 to bring rowing and open boathouse doors across the country to veterans in need.

Not all of them have suffered as long as McRae did. After 14 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of U.S. service men and women have returned home physically or emotionally disabled and are in need of support.

The Freedom Rows initiative was announced last fall and is funded through the Grants for Adaptive Sports Programs for Disabled Veterans and Members of the Armed Forces (ASG Program).

Through the grant, USRowing has partnered with VA rehabilitation hospitals and USRowing member organizations in seven cities in the United States including Denver, Colo., Raleigh/Durham, N.C., Oklahoma City, Okla., Palo Alto/Los Gatos, Calif., San Diego, Calif., and Detroit, Ill.

According to Deb Arenberg, USRowing’s adaptive programs development specialist, the purpose of the program is to support injured veterans by getting them involved with sport for the many reasons that are benefits of rowing – for weight loss, exercise, cardio fitness, potentially getting their families involved, which is a very big component of veterans programs, getting them involved with a social opportunities, and getting them involved in the culture of rowing clubs.

 She says the repetitive nature of rowing is very beneficial to those who suffer from traumatic brain injury and PTSD. “Our goal was to identity rowing clubs that collaborate with VA programs in underserved areas,” said Arenberg.

“It has been an interesting and challenging process to identify U.S. rowing clubs who have the infrastructure and the manpower to include or add to their existing programming, programs just for veterans.”

Arenberg said that each of the partnerships has been unique. Some are programs just for indoor rowing, some have recreational on-water rowing, and some are competitive. When the partners were identified and their needs assessed, the necessary support and equipment was provided by USRowing through the grant.

“The way we planned the program was to start with rowing on an erg,” she said. “We wanted to teach the rowing stroke. We wanted to get a baseline fitness level going on. We wanted to impart the language of rowing, just get them kind of used to all of that. The second phase is getting them all out on the water, and for each unique club that might mean something different.

“In Oklahoma, there are some very active, injured vets and they needed a competitive four, which was just delivered to them recently. They use that four for training and for competition. In Detroit, they are not quite ready for boats. So we got them some ergs.

“But in addition to the erg program set up at the Detroit VA, they have a secondary program out at the Detroit Boat Club and eventually they are going to be ready for boats. What has come out of that Detroit program, because of the Detroit Boat Club’s support of the local VA, is that they are going to host to the 2016 VA Golden Age Games for over 55-year-old veterans. Detroit was selected because of its proactive work with rowing with the vets, which is a really big honor. So each situation is unique and we work them in a unique fashion.”

Across the country, people are taking notice of the positive effect adaptive sports programs are having on wounded military members and other such efforts are being undertaken.

There are a number of events that now include rowing, including the Valor Games series, which feature numerous sports for wounded veterans. McRae has participated in two already, one on a volleyball team and one with an erg competition, where he finished second.

This year at the 2015 Masters Henley Regatta at Henley-on-Thames, five United States military veterans participated in the event to honor a former Marine Corps Captain.

The group was sponsored by former U.S. Marine Charles Klotsche of Palm Beach, Fla., and the Globetrotter Marathon organization he started in 2007 to offer severely disabled veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the opportunity to travel to and participate in internationally recognized marathons around the world. Klotsche also has a sailing component to his program in Palm Beach and is hoping to expand into rowing.

“What we’re trying to do is increase the awareness of the military in these international sporting events,” Klotsche said. “This is what we do with the wheelchair races. MacDonald’s International is our prime supporter, and they pay for most of our travel and expenses and we get great publicity.

“It’s a nice way to acknowledge these military men and women. We were originally thinking about doing a rowing event on the Thames River, or taking a group to cross the English Channel. But we made a lot of contacts in London, and we found out that the Henley was the way to do it,” he said.

Having a competitive sport has been a lifesaver for many returning veterans.

In March, USRowing sponsored a weeklong Para-rowing camp at Sarasota-Bradenton’s Nathan Benderson Park to recruit pre-elite athletes with Paralympic potential. Three veterans who were wounded while on active duty attended.

One, Helman Roman of Miami, was wounded in Afghanistan. His leg was fractured from his knee down during an IED explosion that pulverized the bones in his ankle. Roman was introduced to rowing by a friend in Miami and now rows regularly.

“Any type of sport that you can adapt for a wounded veteran is a life-changing experience,” he said. “The thing is, when you come back from active duty and are reintroduced into civilian life after being wounded, your purpose just kind of fades off. You’re not in a good place. What adaptive sports does is give you a new meaning, a new purpose.”

Patrick Kington, who coaches 2014 U.S. arms and shoulders single sculler Blake Haxton, is also the veterans liaison in San Diego, Calif., and the military program coach at the San Diego Rowing Club. A Marine veteran himself, Kington sees every day the value in the Freedom Rows program.

“It’s very important to have a program like this,” Kington said. “The skill sets of being a rower and being in the military are very similar. They are groups of people who are used to working hard and being part of a team. For a lot of injured service members, getting back to a sense of normalcy and being able to compete against others again in an athletic environment can be a real aid.

free3“It can be a real struggle, adjusting back into everything, and I think this gives you a space where you can be able to train,” he said. “These are people used to being on a schedule, working out, working in teams and in a unit. We’ve got a lot of military bases around here, three or four Marine Corp bases, and an additional three Navy bases, so there are tons of service members.

“A lot of the people coming home are coming home to San Diego, so this is a great opportunity for them to be local, stay near their units and bases, and still be able to get out on the water to compete and train. I have a group of about 12 that are all wounded on some level or another, and one of the great things about this program is how scalable rowing is to different levels of injuries.

“With a cognitive impairment, you can do the legs, trunk and arms four, and then as the injuries get higher, you have trunk and arms, and arms and shoulders. A lot of the wounds are not necessarily visible, but all of them have some type of disability rating.”

The 2015 Freedom Rows cycle will end this fall, but USRowing is seeking funding and sponsorships to expand the program for a second year, Arenberg said.” We just submitted our renewal of this grant for the 2016 cycle,” she said.

“We hope to hear in July how much will be awarded. We applied for the full $500,000 dollars, and we’re hoping that our hard work this year demonstrates what it takes to successfully carry out this program. Our intent is to continue work with the existing seven programs we already have and to add an additional ten.”

Learn more about the Freedom Rows initiative and find out how you can get involved at
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