Veterans have given this nation a “priceless gift” that will last a lifetime and beyond, according to Mike Johnston, owner of Montana River Guides. As a way to thank veterans for their service and sacrifice, Johnston offers them the gift of free, guided riverboarding excursions through the whitewater rapids of the Alberton Gorge near Missoula, Montana.
Riverboarding is a board sport in which the participant lies prone on their board with fins on their feet for propulsion and steering. Half of your body rests on the board, while your legs drag behind to kick and steer through the whitewater rapids, dodging boulders while busting through waves.
Johnston started by offering the adrenaline-pumping trips to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, he offers them to any Montana veteran. By summer’s end, Montana River Guides had provided trips to more than 200 local veterans.
“We all talk about how much these men and women sacrificed, but when you actually see that sacrifice up close, you can really see how much they gave,” Johnston said in a telephone interview with HealthCentral. “It is an honor to give something back to those who gave so much of themselves for this country.”
A new change of pace
He recalled a specific incident that touched him personally that provides inspiration for his work. He shared the following about a young man named Jordan Lewis:
Lewis, 30, a Bitterroot Valley native who graduated from Corvallis High School in 2003, passed away Tuesday, May 12, 2015, after a small utility vehicle overturned during a training exercise on the Melrose Air Force Range about 35 miles west of Clovis, New Mexico. A staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force serving as a flight engineer for the CV-22 Osprey aircraft in the 20th Special Operations Squadron, Lewis was a 12-year veteran of the military. He was deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
A few years ago, his wife, Samantha, showed up at our shop for a riverboard trip with Jordan’s mom and her best friend. Samantha said they wanted to go on a riverboard trip because Jordan had died about a month earlier, just after they had a baby, and she wanted to share what was one of their happiest times together, Johnston said.
“I thought about how Jordan would have wanted me to handle that trip,” Johnston said. “And I decided to try to make it just as fun as the trip I had done in the thunderstorm. And we had a blast. We saw otters. I felt like I had honored Jordan by giving his wife and mom a great river experience. After the trip that day we were all in the cabin visiting and I remembered that I had taken some photos and even made a video of Samantha and Jordan’s trip.
I looked it up on YouTube and, sure enough, there it was. I played it in the cabin for Jordan’s mom and Samantha who were just seeing it for the first time. Here it is.
“It was an overwhelmingly sad and meaningful experience to see the power of Jordan’s image in the video and the effect it had on Samantha and Jordan’s mom that day,” Johnston said. “I saw firsthand the indescribable loss and sacrifice these families make. That helped me understand why it’s important to serve those who serve our country. Samantha comes back every year to run the river with us.”
In 2010, Johnston partnered with the founder of Xsports4vets, Janna Sherrill. What started out as a project for her doctorate turned into a real-life program for combat veterans living with PTSD. Xsports4vets is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping combat veterans heal some of their emotional wounds through extreme sports.
“Riverboarding is as the backbone of the program,” said Sherrill. “They are outdoors being challenged. The sport is empowering and requires them to be fully engaged.”
“The sport helps take the edge out of civilian life,” Sherrill said. “Some of them have visible wounds left over from combat; other wounds can’t necessarily be seen.”
Without Johnston’s generosity, Xsports4vets would likely not exist, Sherrill said.
The best thing veterans can do is hang out with each other, said Jeremiah Mercer, who participates in Xsports4vets. Veterans are each other’s best support system.
How to make the most of it
Mercer, 36, of Missoula, served a combat tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He lives with PTSD.
“By day, you’re helping build the community and taking supplies into the schools and by night you’re raiding their homes and arresting their dads and brothers,” Mercer said. “… You’re left with all those thoughts and you don’t know what to do with them.”
He said the adrenaline rush of riverboarding is similar to that of live combat. It’s a rush only other veterans can relate to. The sport, which can be frightening at times, helps calm him, settle his mind and, at least for a time, eradicate the thoughts, feelings, and rage — common remnants of combat.
Montana winters aren’t conducive to riverboarding. Xsports4vets provides veterans with the gift of teaching them and discussing with them other ways to improve their mood and get a rush. By focusing on their body and how it feels as they exercise, they can even help their nervous system relax. Tips include:
- Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs — running, swimming, basketball, or even dancing — works well. Instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts as you move, focus on how your body feels.
- Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground
- Rock climbing, hang gliding; boxing, weight training, or martial arts can make it easier to focus on your body movements than the recurring thoughts in your mind.
- Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more each day — or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise are just as good
For more information about how active sports can help with mental illness and PTSD, or more about the Xsports4Vets program, visit them on their website.
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Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning health writer living in Palm Springs. She has worked at newspapers in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and at USA Today. Cindy received a 2013-2014 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, chosen as one of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, inducted into the Yankton (S.D.) High School Fine Arts Hall of Fame, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work on Montana’s suicide rate, and named one of Gannett’s Top Ten Supervisors of the Year. Follow Cindy on Twitter @CindyUken, on Facebook and at CindyUken.com.