DECATUR — When Tom Willfong returned home nearly 15 years ago after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, he found few people in Macon County who were able to understand his experience.
Willfong was injured during an attack while on a road march. He broke his arm and now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.
As a veteran, Willfong, 42, has met others who suffer from combat injuries including burns, missing limbs, as well as PTSD. “Talking about it relieves some of the pain,” he said.
Willfong was excited when he found Team River Runner, a kayak organization designed for veterans.
Jennifer Hahn is the coordinator for the Decatur chapter. She recently began organizing the group because of her desire to help veterans.
“I have compassion for those who have served our country,” she said. “I love them for everything they have sacrificed for our freedom.”
As a military wife, Hahn has an understanding of the struggles families often endure while their loved ones are in harm’s way.
She worked for the Veterans Administration in St. Louis. Mo., about 16 years ago and is an experienced recreational therapist, having previously worked with veterans who have spinal cord injuries. During her time with the V.A., she volunteered at recreational veteran events. It was at one of these events she learned of Team River Runner.
The local group has six kayaks of various sizes. The groups plan to meet at 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. A second session will meet at 11 a.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.
In the winter, the groups meet at the Decatur Athletic Club pool. When the weather warms up, they will meet at Lake Decatur’s Nelson Park and Sportsmans Park.
Team River Runner was founded in 2004 in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. Its focus was to provide veterans with leadership opportunities, positive challenges and camaraderie. The organization has 60 locations across the country. Decatur is the only one in Illinois.
Hahn believes the kayak instructions will prove helpful for vets with injuries, both visible and invisible.
“There is a lot of healing that takes place just in talking together,” Hahn said. “Water is a nice leveling element.”
The free family kayak sessions are inviting for children and spouses as well, an element important to Willfong. He understands his wife, Lacey, had her own struggles while he was serving in the Army.
“This is a time to meet other spouses that have the same issues,” he said.
Willfong’s children, Caleb, 10, and Mikenna, 7, are just as excited as he is to kayak.
Hahn is experienced working with veterans and water, but she has invited other accomplished instructors.
Abi McIntosh is the owner of Decatur’s Standing Paddle Co., a standup paddleboard and kayak rental business. Hahn asked her to assist with Team River Runners because of their shared passion for being on the water. “This idea was new to me, but it made sense,” McIntosh said. “I know how therapeutic it can be on the water.”
Jamie Gower, director of recreation and facilities for the Decatur Park District, encourages veterans and their families to take part in Team River Runner. The park district will market and advance the program.
“Their mission aligns with ours, to improve the community health and wellness and quality of life,” Gower said.
For people who love the water, McIntosh said, kayaking is calming and relaxing. “You are close to wildlife,” she said. “And you have a bonding experience with whomever you are with.”
However, for those who do have a fear of water, the experience can also be therapeutic. McIntosh believes the participant emerges from the experience stronger because of it. “They feel good after overcoming fear,” she said.
McIntosh will be supporting Hahn with whatever she needs, such as providing boats or instruction. “She is more than qualified,” McIntosh said.
Willfong was one of the first to jump onboard with the local program.
“It is very hard for a veteran to open up about their injuries,” Willfong said. “That is why these programs are so important. It opens up a communication channel for veterans who are having troubles.”