CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (Oct. 8, 2010) --
Marines from Wounded Warrior Battalion East, headquartered here, traveled to Fayetteville, W.Va. to compete in a 52-mile adventure race Oct. 9-10.
For the 10th year in a row, the U.S. Armed Forces Morale, Welfare and Recreation network sponsored their Wilderness Challenge race in rural West Virginia.
More than 160 service members from the United States and Great Britain participated in this year’s event, which consisted of hiking, biking, running, white water rafting and kayaking.
Race participants awoke to a bright, cloudless sky in the early morning of October 9. The day began with an 8-kilometer foot race through mountain trails.
“It was a nice run. I enjoyed it—especially the scenery… although I was a little worried about tumbling on that slippery downhill, with all those rocks and mud,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Boutwell, a Wounded Warrior based here for the past several years.
Following the run, the muddy Marines changed over into wetsuits and hit the river, which greeted them with class five rapids and water temperatures averaging approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
They paddled a 13-mile stretch of the Gauley River, which many whitewater enthusiasts tout as one of America’s best for rafting and kayaking.
With the help of a local river guide, they successfully negotiated the intense rapids, as frigid waves splashed against the Marines’ faces and torsos and their raft slammed against the river’s exposed rocks and boulders.
“The water was cold, but it wasn’t… unbearably cold,” said Boutwell, who sat in the bow of the raft and, despite this being his first time on a river in extreme conditions, paddled feverishly to lead his team to a strong finish for the day.
“Paddling the rapids was exciting; it really got your adrenaline pumping,” said Boutwell, a Seguin, Texas native who was severely injured in an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq in 2004 and has been fighting his way back to a peak level of physical fitness ever since.
The second day of the race presented participants with an early-morning 10-mile mountain bike ride on rocky, muddy mountain trails. The Marines climbed and descended, splashing through deep mud puddles and playing leap frog with the Army and Navy teams while jockeying for position.
The mountain bike portion of the race ended with harrowing downhill slalom on a rocky road, where several U.S. Army soldiers were launched over their handlebars, resulting in scrapes, bruises and broken ribs.
The Marine Corps Wounded Warriors were more fortunate, making it through the bike race with no major spills or injuries.
“It was awesome flying down those trails, definitely a great time. That was the best part of the whole adventure race. I was sore from the day before, but was still able to finish strong on the bike. I just wish I could do that every weekend,” said Sgt. Michael Harkin, a Wounded Warrior based at the battalion’s detachment in Portsmouth, Va.
An amphibious assault vehicle crewman and team leader, Harkin recently joined the battalion to enable him to focus on recovering from injuries resulting from multiple combat deployments.
Harkin explained that the adventure race was beneficial to the Wounded Warrior participants from an emotional healing perspective, in addition to being good for camaraderie among service members from different branches.
The cycling course ended on the banks of the New River, where the Marines donned their wetsuits and headed out for a 7-mile paddle in two-person inflatable kayaks.
After about two hours of navigating the currents and rapids, where all members of the Wounded Warrior team flipped and swam through the rapids on one or more occasion, the Marines beached their boats the river banks and set out on a 15-mile hike up and down the grueling mountain terrain.
“This experience was important for these Marines, to get out of the barracks, and back into the military; to push themselves harder than they have in a long time,” said Cpl. John Harrison, who was medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2009 but has maintained his close ties to Wounded Warrior Battalion East ever since.
Harrison has participated on the Wounded Warrior team in the Wilderness Challenge for the past three years.
“Just because we’re broken in some way doesn’t mean we’re useless,” said Harrison. “This kind of thing builds camaraderie, like we are used to in an operational Marine Corps unit. Even when we retire as Wounded Warriors, it is important that we hold ourselves to the same standards that we did when we were on active duty.”
Although the Wounded Warriors were among the last of the 41 teams to finish this year’s MWR Wilderness Challenge, thy received kudos and constant encouragement from other race participants and spectators..
“The Wounded Warrior teams were an amazing bunch,” said Michael Bond, the race coordinator. “They acclimated well to their surroundings and didn’t let their injuries deter them from a difficult weekend…. I watched them all weekend as other military members, both Marines and other branches, encouraged them for their display of gritty determination.”
As racers, event staff and volunteers enjoyed the post-race barbeque dinner and draught beer, the Wounded Warriors expressed their profound sense of accomplishment for finishing the 52-mile event all together as a team.
“They truly embody Marine Corps ideals,” said Bond. “It takes strength, agility, perseverance, teamwork and discipline to complete this (Wilderness Challenge), and the Wounded Warriors did it, smiling all the way. That has got to be a real esteem builder.”