Retreat sets no boundaries for wounded warriors

Posted Aug. 25, 2013, at 1:29 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 25, 2013, at 8:49 p.m.

JEFFERSON, Maine — Retired Marine Staff Sgt. D.J. Martin enjoyed fly fishing for the first time in many years and for the first time kayaked with his wife and two boys on Damariscotta Lake.

What others may take for granted was viewed as an extraordinarily special weekend for Martin, his family and 26 other disabled military veterans and their families thanks to volunteers who put on the ninth annual Veterans No Boundaries summer sports retreat.

The veterans and their families spent three days at Camp Wavus beginning Friday, participating in paddling, cycling, shooting, archery, fishing, paddle boarding, martial arts, riding on a zip line that goes over part of the lake, and crafts.

For Martin, this is the fourth time he has participated in a retreat organized by Veterans No Boundaries, which is a program of Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation. He said he has done things that he never imagined he would be able to do again.

Martin was stationed in Nasiriyah, Iraq, in March 2003, and his unit’s command post was under constant mortar attack. He was bringing ammunition to one of the machine gun posts, and halfway through a third trip to the gunner, a mortar exploded nearby.

“I was knocked out. When I regained consciousness I finished bringing the ammunition,” Martin said.

He was not taken to a hospital or an aid station but worked through his injury at first. Soon, however, he began experiencing memory and balance problems.

He was later stationed to a less taxing job back in the U.S. His health deteriorated, however, with his memory getting worse, and he had to start walking with a cane.

“I remember the day when I couldn’t remember how to get home. That’s the day I stopped driving,” Martin said.

He sought medical treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There, he was diagnosed as having suffered a traumatic brain injury.

The Brownville Junction native retired from the military and moved back to Maine, living in LaGrange. He has undergone physical and occupational therapy for the past several years and has improved to the point where he can drive around LaGrange.

Martin said that when he went to the most recent winter retreat put on by the volunteers, they rigged equipment similar to a walker on skis with tethers connected to other people, which allowed him to go skiing.

“It was unbelieveable. I never thought I could do it in a million years,” Martin said.

This weekend, Martin was looking forward to the fly fishing, something he has been unable to do since his injury.

Joanne McMahon, chair of Veterans No Boundaries, said she feels honored to be able to offer a weekend of respite for the veterans and their families.

McMahon, of Brunswick, is retired from the Navy Nurse Corps. She got involved in adaptive sports after her son was diagnosed with autism. Her daughter wanted to ski and an adaptive sports organization helped so that her son could join in.

McMahon said when the first Veterans No Boundaries retreat was held, three veterans attended. That has expanded to what it is today. Her husband, who is a veteran, and her daughter also volunteer with the program. Her son volunteers as well, although he was out of state for this weekend’s retreat.

“We feel very strongly about helping them. We want this to be a fun and positive weekend,” she said.

Ora Freeman, the wife of retired Staff Sgt. Harold Freeman of the Maine Army National Guard, said the weekend is a boost to both her husband and herself.

“It makes a big difference. It gets him back out. He gets back with other veterans. They all have something in common. He finds he’s not alone. It’s nice to know I’m not alone,” she said.

Staff Sgt. Freeman was stationed in Mosul, Afghanistan, on Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber attacked a mess tent. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, a broken pelvis and leg and shrapnel in his leg.

He spent two-and-a-half years in physical therapy when he first got home.

“He’s come a long way. Events like this help tremendously,” she said.

Veterans No Boundaries has spent months recruiting disabled veterans to attend the weekend retreat. The program has a relationship with the Warrior Transition Unit of Fort Drum, N.Y., which sends injured active duty soldiers to the retreat as part of their rehabilitation.

One of those participants from Fort Drum was Roy Mitchell, his wife, Michelle, and their children Jerrett and Serenity.

Mitchell was injured when the vehicle he was in struck an anti-tank mine in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border in November 2003.

“This is impressive. All the equipment and everything that is readily available for us to do. The volunteers are all friendly and willing to do anything that needs to be done. The slower pace, lack of structure is very, very nice,” Mitchell said. “It’s relaxing when there are no time constraints.”

McMahon said the weekend also allows downtime for veterans and their families, with campfires in the evening for them to take it easy. She said it is important to have time for people with brain injuries to rest.

“It’s not only a rest for them but for their caregivers who are on 24/7 when they are at home. Somebody else has the watch right now and they can take a moment to relax. It’s huge for them because when they go home, they’re back on 24/7,” McMahon said.

The retreat is provided free of charge to all participants. It is paid for through donations from Bath Iron Works, Disabled Sports USA and other sponsors of Veterans No Boundaries, as well as generous donations from individuals, McMahon said.

Martin said the retreats are so valuable he is encouraging a friend and fellow retired Marine from California, who is moving to Maine, to apply for next year’s program.

McMahon said the participants inspire her. She said some of the participants went into the service as one person and came back as another because of the injuries. They have worked, however, at recovering.

“There are some pretty amazing individuals here. They humble me more than I can tell you,” she said.