PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - For many military veterans, their disabilities prevent them from enjoying certain water activities. USM Gulf Park recently received a grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee to connect South Mississippi veterans with the sport of kayaking. The vets are paddling for fun and therapy.
The days of sitting back and watching others enjoy the water are over for many military veterans. On Wednesday, 20 veterans were the first participants in the Yakin with Vets project.
"It was awesome. First time doing it, enjoyed it," said veteran Christopher Smith.
The staff from the Institute for Disability Studies at the USM campus in Long Beach and the Biloxi V.A. teamed up to offer the therapeutic benefits of kayaking to veterans. Each vet has a mental or physical disability. Lewis Dressler is 76-years-old, and he is legally blind.
"It's the reward that they don't think that they can experience the water anymore. We had some spinal cord injury patients for the first time out on the beach today," said Project Coordinator Ashley-Nicole Flowers.
Anthony Farve was injured while on patrol in Iraq in 2007.
"We got hit with an IED in the back of the vehicle, and it shattered my knee, my tibia, and my shin and my ankle," said Farve.
The wounded warrior's leg was amputated in January. A prosthetic leg made it difficult for him to walk on the sand and get in the water, but with a specially-equipped kayak and some assistance from trained staff, Farve can now paddle around with ease.
"Fun, I like it a lot. I like being out in the water. I don't think I would have had the opportunity to do it if it wasn't for this event," Favre said.
"Oh, it's amazing to see the smiles on their face, the joy of it," said Flowers.
The adventure can help disabled veterans become more active, boost their health and give them a sense of independence.
"It's incredible, absolutely. It gives them more something to do than sit around in a building all day long," said veteran Ralph Nelson.
"Oh, it's awesome. We need things to do and places to go. We thank these guys very much for giving us this opportunity to come out here today. We just hope we can go on many more trips," said Smith.
The $13,000 Olympic grant paid for training for the staff and therapists and allowed them to purchase two new kayaks. USM has several other kayaks in its inventory. Through a loan program, vets can use the kayaks for free. There are plans to offer monthly kayaking trips for the veterans.