BIG MOOSE TOWNSHIP, Maine — Army Sgt. Julio Larrea is a sensitive guy. At least that’s what he tells his new fishing buddies, when he’s not busy busting their chops for their apparently substandard fishing skills, or anything else he can razz them for.
“I’m sensitive,” the 36-year-old from Queens, N.Y., said, pausing for effect before delivering another verbal spear. “About me. Not so much about other people.”
Larrea says his boat is going to win the daily fishing tournament on the East Outlet of the Kennebec River (it does). He says he’s going to catch a ton of fish (he doesn’t). He says he’s going to have the best time in the Maine woods of any of these other active-duty soldiers (he might). And he says he’s going to go back to work in two weeks, if his orders come through (he will. Trust him on this one).
The fact that he is missing his left leg below the knee, the result of a vehicle collision in Afghanistan? That’s the ticket that “won” him admission on this trip. But it’s not what’s going to define him for the rest of his life.
Larrea says so. And you believe, too.
“Everybody that gets hurt, they become very reclusive,” Larrea said. “They want to be in their own little world to try to heal. Programs like this one put them out there, and let them do, and show them that they’re still capable of doing things.”
Larrea was one of five active-duty servicemen battling injury or illness who spent five days in the Maine woods this month, spending three days fishing with guides and living in Oak Lodge on Kineo Island in Moosehead Lake. They were participating in one of 10 trips planned this year by Wounded Warrior Outdoors, a nonprofit organization that takes injured active-duty servicemen and women on adventures across North America.
The Wounded Warrior Outdoors is not affiliated with other organizations that use the “Wounded Warrior” name. It is an independent, nonprofit group that aims to take 60 veterans on trips such as the Maine adventure each year.
The key to the group’s efforts: Adventures serve therapeutic purposes. This isn’t a field trip, though it may seem so at times. Instead, hunting and fishing excursions serve as therapy for soldiers who are continuing their recovery after serious injury.
“It’s not the end of the line,” Larrea said of his injury, and the injuries of other participants — all of whom are current Army soldiers who have been recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“Things like this [program] can build you up, motivate you. You say, ‘If I could be out there in the woods, hunting a bear, or fishing for this thing or going to Alaska and stuff like that, I could go up in an elevator and get a job.’”
Larrea plans on his next job being similar to his present one: He’s just waiting on paperwork that will allow him to continue his Army career. He figures he’ll do that work in the Warrior Transition Unit, where guys like him deal with catastrophic injuries.
“I want to be there to help them out,” he said.
Wounded Warrior Outdoors was the brainchild of Ron Raboud, an avid outdoorsman who has taken the soldiers on trips since the program’s inception in 2006. He founded the organization in honor of his dad, a World War II veteran who instilled in him a love of outdoor sports.
On Wednesday, he shared a boat with guide Dan Legere of Greenville, with whom he has fished for a decade. Raboud said Wounded Warrior Outdoors’ offerings aren’t vacations; instead, they’re extended therapy sessions.
“These guys aren’t sitting there, feeling sorry for themselves,” Raboud said. “Disability is not part of our program. We focus on ability.”
At Walter Reed, the soldiers typically receive close to two hours of physical therapy a day. Afield, they get a week’s worth of work in a day, Raboud said.
“It doesn’t feel like [they’re doing therapy for 10 hours] because we’re using the outdoors as a tool. They get into the peace and serenity out here. They’ve seen their first moose. They’ve seen their first loon. They’ve seen bald eagles. It’s very therapeutic.”
Raboud said the outdoor environment provides some unique challenges that don’t exist in hospitals, or even in cities.
“The real world, to these guys, is not [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant,” he said. “None of the outdoors is ADA compliant, so they have to struggle and learn to function in a real-world environment. It’s huge for them.”
The rules that Wounded Warrior Outdoors follows are pretty simple, Raboud said.
“We’re 100 percent outdoor-focused, 100 percent therapeutic, and 100 percent volunteer,” he said.
Making sure things stay “therapeutic” is Ross Colquhoun, the outdoor field and stream program manager at Walter Reed. Colquhoun, a retired Navy veteran from San Diego, accompanies soldiers on all of the trips that originate out of Washington, and is fiercely loyal to his men.
“I’ve told moms, ‘I get it. He’s your baby. He’s your child. He was injured. You don’t want anything to happen to him,’” Colquhoun said. “[And I tell the moms] ‘I will take great care of him. I promise you. And you will see a different individual when we come back, whether it’s three days or five days or 10 days. I promise you that.”
By all accounts, Colquhoun has kept that promise.
“Am I motivated? Yeah. I let them fail. It’s like a child: I always tell them, If you give me a two-percent effort, you’re going to get a two-percent return,” Colquhoun said. “If you give me a hundred, you’re going to get a hundred back. [The thought is] in your heart, mind, body and soul, don’t let that chair control your destiny. You do. And nobody else.”
Among the soldiers who participated in this year’s Maine outdoor adventure was Austin Weigle, a 20-year-old Army National Guard specialist from Bowling Green, Ohio.
On Wednesday, Weigle was fishing. Just more than three months ago, he nearly died.
“I got hit on April 4, by a suicide bomber [in Afghanistan],” Weigle said.
Weigle said the bomber rode up on a motorcycle, dismounted and walked past him and the soldiers he was with. He remembers little of the incident, but can itemize its devastating results succinctly.
“It sent shrapnel into my chest wall and into my stomach. I had a collapsed lung, it tore apart my small intestine, and it hit my heart,” Weigle said. “And that’s how I ended up in Walter Reed.”
Three soldiers weren’t as lucky: They died in the explosion. Six, counting him, were wounded.
For Weigle, an outdoorsy kid growing up, the Wounded Warrior Outdoors trip to Maine was just what he needed.
“It gets you out of the hospital, first and foremost. You’re cooped up in the hospital a lot and you don’t get to do a whole lot,” he said. “Getting out here with all these guys, you build a sense of camaraderie, since you’re not with your original unit, and you make some good friends [who are] going through the same kinds of things. It’s just nice to have something in common.”
Not all soldiers have injuries that are as obvious to outside observers. Many have been hit by improvised explosive devices, and have suffered traumatic brain injuries that must be addressed. The socialization process that occurs on Wounded Warrior Outdoors trips is a benefit to those soldiers, Raboud and Colquhoun said.
“You see them in the hospital sitting in a square room, talking to a therapist, which is great because it’s trying to get into them,” Colquhoun said. “But if you get them away from the hospital setting and you bring them out here, this is where the healing really begins.”