Students assist injured veterans with recreational activities

May 21, 2012

Mike Cook recalls sitting in a bar in Hong Kong the day after Christmas when they got the call.

An unexpected tsunami had hit the coast of Indonesia, causing one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. Cook's naval unit was deployed to the area.

"Normally you work up to combat deployment, but we had no warning," he said. "We weren't prepared at all."

The devastation was overwhelming. Cook and his unit saw more than 150,000 bodies, all casualties of the deadly tsunami.

A few years later, Cook still feels the emotional toll of three tours of duty, adjusting to civilian life with the added challenge of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cook is appreciative of Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), an organization he has been active with for the past two years, because they understand, he said.

"They get it."

WWP is designed to assist injured service members by fostering friendships and the introduction of physically adaptive sports, said Jacquelyn Kelly, the nonprofit organization's regional physical health and wellness coordinator.

"We care for veteran's physical well-being, mind, body and soul," she explained.

WWP and Indiana State University teamed up to host a day-long retreat for 14 veterans, offering them the chance to meet one another and take part in recreational activities.

Indiana State students assisted veterans with activities such as canoeing, fishing, a climbing wall and even zip-lining at the ISU field campus near Brazil.

Jerry Smith, a junior recreation and sport management major from Hammond, helped out as part of a course about diversity in recreation.

"This is a chance to get out and interact with different people," Smith said. "Here we see the importance and significance of our soldiers. We see how much they lay on the line and take risks to keep us safe."

John Pommier, chair of the department of kinesiology, recreation and sport, called the experience invaluable for students.

"What they're seeing here, you can't teach in the classroom," said Pommier, motioning to a student biking alongside a veteran.

Wounded Warrior ProgramDane Honeyman, an adaptive bike tech with Chicago-based Project Mobility, drove down for the day's events, bringing a variety of bikes with alternative pedaling and seating for people with disabilities.

"The idea is to give veterans a fun gateway to being back and active. To show them that there's more to life than just having that disability. I've watched it change lives," said Honeyman.

That is easier said than done, however, said military veteran Mitch Nihart.

"It's tough," he said. "And it's hard to admit that when you've been doing this for 30 years," he said.

A man with a commanding presence and ‘tough guy' mentality, he answers his phone with a gruff "Sergeant Nihart." Faithfully by his side is Hutch, a Jack Russell terrier service dog.

"You've got to work with what you've got left. Move forward and not let your stresses set you back," said Nihart.

Those aren't empty words, coming from a man who faces a multitude of challenges: neuropathy of unknown ideology, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an immobile right side. He's had multiple neck and back surgeries, can't smell or taste, and has a 90 percent VA disability rating.

And that is without taking into account the emotional impact.

"In my group of 200 men, we came back with 50 divorces," he said. Thankfully, all of Nihart's men did come back safely, including his son. "The hardest thing is to come back and it doesn't look like we're in a war," said Nihart. "The other day some snot-nosed kid is in front of me complaining about waiting for his $6 latte."

He contrasted that with army life overseas. "Over there, 32 oz. of water is a shower," he said.

Nihart encouraged citizens to find an organization they support and then follow through by volunteering.

"Supporting soldiers is more than a catch phrase slogan," he said.

James Smith, who served in the Army's 24th infantry division, made the same point.

"It's one thing for celebrities to say they support the troops. It's another for them to come and actually show they care."

After Smith returned from a tour in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, actor Bruce Willis hosted an expensive dinner and gave a heartfelt speech.

"He was actually a pretty emotional guy," said Smith. "It meant a lot."

The kind gesture was a thank you to the battalion, whose members were told they saw some of the most severe combat since Vietnam, including the notorious Battle of Mosul. Smith said 182 members -nearly half of the battalion-received the Purple Heart.

After attending the day's events at the field campus, Smith was headed to a ceremony to receive his own Purple Heart.

Still in intensive therapy, Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury and other complications after driving over an improvised explosive device in 2006.

Smith enjoyed fishing and was able to ride a bicycle for the first time in 20 years using one of the adaptive bikes.

"I wanted to know more veterans and branch out," he said.

"It was good for us [veterans] to connect," agreed Cook.

"This cause is something we believe in," said Pommier. He said the university hopes to co-host more events with WWP in the future, perhaps as many as four per year.

Cortney Cross, a senior human development and family studies major, said the experience helped shape her perspective.

"I took a history class about World War II that gave me a new respect for soldiers. But being able to see and interact with those who served our country today is, well, it's a privilege to be here."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/Wounded-Warrior-Project-2012/i-ThHdHxj/0/L/May152012woundedwarriorproject-L.jpg - Navy veteran Mike Cook, right, shoots an air rifle alongside a fellow veteran during a Wounded Warrior Project program at the Indiana State University Field Campus on May 15, 2012. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Events/Wounded-Warrior-Project-2012/i-kJDN6Wg/0/L/May152012woundedwarriorproject-L.jpg - Indiana State University senior Evan Borchers, left, canoes with a military veteran during a Wounded Warrior Project program at Indiana State's field campus on May 15, 2012. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Contact: Don Rogers, associate professor of kinesiology, recreation and sport and coordinator of recreation therapy program, at Don.Rogers@indstate.edu

Writer: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, ISU Communications and Marketing, at bdonat@sycamores.indstate.edu