ALONG ELKHORN CREEK IN SCOTT COUNTY — Josh Williams had just re-signed with the Air Force when he and four buddies went out on routine patrol.
This war has been going on long enough that you know what comes next: A bomb went off on an Iraq roadside, Williams was thrown 45 feet and knocked out. When he came to, what was left of one friend's leg lay across his body.
"All four of my buddies died," said Williams, in a tone that says he's told this story many times before. "Four of my closest friends. Every one of their moms gave me a dog tag."
That was six years ago.
He strives to keep those dog tags close, tucked safely in his room.
He can't shake the memory, even though he tries.
It's every minute in his head, a shadow behind every thought.
Over time, it made his world small, then smaller. He eventually ended up in the Veterans Affairs Hospital on Leestown Road in Lexington.
And soon enough, Williams found some relief paddling down a Kentucky stream.
On the water, "you are not in your head. Stress is somewhere else, because you are right there in the moment. You can't be thinking about your problems," said Linda Tribble, who helped create the program that brought Williams and others to the water.
Learning to paddle
The Central Kentucky program is not an original idea, although it has some unique features. In 2004, some Washington, D.C., kayakers decided to help vets from Iraq and Afghanistan re-enter the world by learning how to paddle in the pool at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They would then venture from the pool out onto calm streams; then the most adventurous would go onto white water and eventually even the ocean. It's called Project River Runner.
Tribble, a full-time compliance office at the Lexington VA and part-time paddler, saw an article about the Washington program and thought, "There's no reason we can't do it here."
The goal behind the idea was simple.
"We have a society of veterans who were young and active when they left. We want to get them back to that lifestyle," she said.
She found the right people to talk to in the VA, contacted some fellow paddlers who would volunteer, tracked down some federal money aimed at rehabilitation that could help buy kayaks and two years ago started taking to the water.
Helped by Nathan Depenbrock of Canoe Kentucky and volunteers from the Bluegrass Wild Water Association, they started in tranquil waters instead of a pool.
The program was open to all veterans at the hospital and those who had completed programs there, including recent vets and warriors from conflicts long off the front page.
Their wounds range from physical to emotional. A number suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or struggle with addiction. Some appear physically sound but have suffered closed-head injuries that complicate everyday life.
Others have severe physical challenges but thrive with the help of volunteers. One, Ben Brown, an Army vet and paraplegic, has excelled, going white water rafting in Montana and becoming a vocal advocate for the group.
Getting out on the water has therapeutic values, said VA speech pathologist Lyn Tindal. For vets with head injuries, for example, it helps sharpen spatial perception, helps patients practice how to follow directions, solve problems and stretch their memory. On the physical side, it takes balance and strength.
They have to interact with strangers and depend on one another to venture out into a world many have avoided too long.
Last week in Georgetown, on the shores of Elkhorn Creek, the mostly silent veterans got out of the VA bus as the sun was going down. Most were quicker to light up a cigarette than put on the kayak gear. But soon there was a buzz as they emptied boxes of water shoes and suitable shirts and grabbed paddles and vessels.
It wasn't 10 minutes in before the first vet tipped over into slow, green current but he was soon righted and on his way.
There was a little game of kayak football but mostly just smooth waters during the hourlong trip. There was lots of laughing as they ventured just far enough out of civilization that they could no longer hear the cars on the nearby roads.
They came back energized. Williams stowed his gear and then helped his buddies. "It's just like in the military," he said as he stacked kayaks in a trailer.
"You can tell there is a big difference between them when they go out and they come back," Tribble said. "They've bonded. They're more relaxed."
Depenbrock, of Canoe Kentucky, sees it, too. "These guys are real heros," said Depenbrock, who chokes up a little when he talks about the transformations he's seen. "I get way more out of it than they do."
He hopes to expand the program. He, Tribble and Brown will soon be speaking at a national meeting of water sports professionals, hoping to help others start a program in their area and secure more sponsorships to serve vets.
It's not that one trip down a country stream can heal years of pain.
But it helps.
For a while this week, Williams didn't dwell on what happened, what should have happened, what's going to happen next.
He floated and splashed and laughed a little.
He went out in the world, and he wants to do it again. He's going to get a necklace for those tucked-away dog tags so he can wear them and keep them safe the next time.
"This is the most fun I've had in a long, long time," he said.