- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

GALICE, Ore. (AP) - Veterans often return from Afghanistan and Iraq physically and mentally shattered.

That’s where the Freedom Alliance and its annual Rogue River trip comes in.

Four guides and 11 veterans took off from Grave Creek boat launch in late October for three days of whitewater rafting and camaraderie in lodges on the Wild Section of the river, reported the Daily Courier (https://bit.ly/2fchh9q).

Mike Dawson of Grants Pass and his father-in-law, Jerry Schuld, organized the annual fishing trip in 2011 through the Freedom Alliance, an organization that advocates for families of injured and deceased veterans.

The fishing trip turned into a rafting trip because all the recent rain left the river a bit too high and off-color for fishing.

But the purpose of the trip didn’t change at all.

“It’s one thing for these guys to talk to a shrink. It’s totally different when they talk to one of their brothers who experienced the same thing,” said Dawson, who was on the riverbank as the group launched their rafts into the Rogue.

“The night they leave and the night they come back, the difference is night and day.”

Dawson overheard some of the angst, right on his back patio, when he had a Freedom Alliance group over for dinner two years ago.

“We had a guy who was suicidal. One of the experienced vets was with him,” Dawson said. “He used some very frank language. I think he probably saved his life.”

When it comes to therapy, it doesn’t hurt to have good-natured guides like Bret Clark and Bill Inkrote along, river vets who were making their fifth straight Freedom Alliance trip. They were joined by guides Jordan Abbott of Medford and David Freeman of Portland.

“I think it’s important to show these guys gratitude for the time they served,” Clark said. “The guys are excited to go, and so am I.”

“I love it down here, and these guys are great,” Inkrote said. “They’ve taken care of all of us, and they’re great people to be with.”

The trip covers 60 miles, with stops at Marial and Lucas lodges, and a final take-out at Quosatana Creek, well below Agness on the lower Rogue.

Mark Deleon, 35, of El Paso, formerly of the 1st Marine Division, couldn’t wait to go rafting. His first Freedom Alliance trip was halibut fishing in Alaska last year.

“I want to get rafting off my checklist,” he said.

He was severely injured in Afghanistan while operating a grenade launcher in 2011, suffering broken arms that became infected, resulting in 12 surgeries. He has metal plates in both arms.

“I’ve got three good fingers on each hand,” he said. “The other two don’t work so well.”

But the Freedom Alliance helped put together a special harness that allowed him to handle a fishing rod in Alaska. On the Rogue, all he has to do is hang on.

A handful in the group were Army Rangers who participated in Operation Red Wings, the 2005 military operation in Afghanistan now famous for the rescue of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell after three of his team members were killed in an ambush.

Will Black, 35, of Boise, Idaho, was one of his rescuers, and while he didn’t want to discuss Red Wings, he was thrilled about reuniting with fellow Rangers for the first time in a decade.

“Honestly I’m not a big fan of whitewater,” Black said. “If it wasn’t for my buddies I wouldn’t be on this trip.”

The vets also were treated to a trip to Crater Lake National Park before heading down the river.

“By the time they come back, they’ll all be a bunch of buddies,” Schuld said.

___

Information from: Daily Courier, https://www.thedailycourier.com

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