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Mission of healing on the Rogue

GALICE — Kevin Pannell leans into his hiking poles, pulling himself forward as he carefully lifts his metal right leg over a moss-covered rock.

The next step is more difficult. Grunting slightly, he swings his left prosthesis around, its metallic shin clanking against the slick, wet stone.

"I'm pretty equal to everybody out on the street, but when it comes to stuff like this, it is a challenge," says Pannell, a former Army sergeant who lost both legs in Iraq. "The big rocks are real tough. It doesn't take much ground like this to throw you off out here when you're missing a knee."

Not that Mother Nature's obstacle course, the rugged path around the south bank of Rainie Falls on the Wild and Scenic section of the lower Rogue River, is going to stop him.

He is among four Iraq War veterans, all wounded in flesh or spirit, on a four-day, nearly 50-mile float trip down the Rogue from Rand to the confluence of Quosatana Creek a dozen miles below Agness.

"There isn't much I can't do, unless I want to play in the NBA, but I wasn't much good at basketball to begin with," Pannell says with a shrug.

Juan Arredondo, wearing a prosthesis where his lower-left arm once was, has his back. Should the double amputee stumble, Arredondo stands ready to grab Pannell's sweatshirt by the shoulder with his strong right hand.

Next comes Alejandro "Alex" Albarran, carefully planting his prosthetic right leg on a rock while planting his right hand on Mike Brande's steady shoulder.

Yet it is only at Rainie Falls with its Class V rapids that the veterans retreat from the white water. They are as gung-ho as Marines on a mission as they bounce through a mile of Class IV water in Mule Creek Canyon, beginning with a pair of rocks aptly nicknamed "The Jaws," followed by "The Narrows," "Coffee Pot" and the "Picket Fence" at Blossom Bar.

The trip is under the auspices of the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project based in Jacksonville, Fla., an organization dedicated to helping severely injured veterans get on with their lives. The local effort resulted from a fundraiser launched early in August by Grants Pass contractor and veteran John Chmelir.

Three river lodges — Black Bar, Marial and Lucas — pitched in with reduced rates. So did Briggs Rogue River Guide Service of Grants Pass, which provided three guides and three drift boats for the inaugural mission of healing on the lower Rogue.

For four days, the veterans fish, razz each other unmercifully and bask in the rare November sun sparkling off the water. Evenings are spent chatting over bountiful meals in the lodges, followed by a sound night's sleep and a hot, hearty breakfast.

By 0800 military time each morning, the wounded warriors are attacking the river, fishing for coho salmon and lunker steelhead. The fate of fish not released is to sizzle over a gas barbecue during leisurely lunches on the picturesque riverbank.

With each passing hour, the river casts its spell on the veterans.

"I keep getting caught up in watching the scenery — it's so pretty out here," says Pannell, a veteran fisherman who has wet his line from Alaska to the Virgin Islands. "I love to fish, been fishing since I got my first Snoopy rod as a kid.

"You can't let an injury stop you," he adds later. "This is what I loved to do before."

Kevin Pannell, 29, joined the Army early in 1996. The former sergeant and his wife, Danielle, live in Hot Springs, Ark. He has a son, Hunter, 6, from a previous marriage.

He arrived in Iraq at the end of 2003, earning his combat infantry badge in Sadr City, the huge slum in Baghdad. He recalls precisely what happened on June 13, 2004.

"The day I got hurt we were pulling security for the civil affairs guys who were out there trying to hand out some T-shirts and fliers in the area," he says. "It was just one of those 'fuzzy bunny' missions."

After the mission was completed, his unit checked out a nearby alley. They started walking down the narrow lane, spread out. Single file. The mercury was well into the triple digits.

The ambush caught them by surprise. Three grenades were thrown at the rear of the formation. Two landed at Pannell's feet.

"I never lost consciousness," he recalls. "Both of my legs were in real bad shape, real torn up."

In 13 minutes he was whisked to the hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad. His left leg was amputated above the knee; his right just below the knee. After being transferred to a larger military hospital in Balad, he was sent to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then to the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"I love Walter Reed," he says. "It was my home for nearly two years. I was treated real well. It catches a lot of flak because it's an old hospital. But that's one of the things I liked about it. It's steeped in history."

He was medically retired from the Army in fall 2005. He is now called on periodically to serve as a motivational speaker, and hopes to help others with physical challenges.

Within an hour of stepping into the drift boat on the first day, Arredondo, embarking on his virgin freshwater fishing adventure, feels a powerful yank at the end of his line.

Deep in the water he sees a silvery flash. Using his prosthesis to turn the handle, he reels each time the fish ends its run. As Arredondo brings the fish to the surface, guide service owner Bret Clark neatly scoops up the roughly 10-pound coho salmon in a fish net.

Arredondo is the first in the group to hook a fish and land it, an achievement that gives him bragging rights for the rest of the trip.

"This is the first freshwater fish I've ever caught — this is the biggest freshwater fish I've ever caught," he announces to the world. "Man, it was fun."

And he lets it be known there was no way his prize was going to escape.

"I was going to hook 'em with my arm if he tried to get away," Arredondo says, grinning like a Cheshire cat as he holds up his hook prosthesis.

Juan Arredondo, 27, joined the Army in summer 1998, intent on making the military his career. He and his wife, Jessica, have a daughter, Rose, 10, and son, Diego, 5. They live in San Antonio, Texas.

He arrived in Iraq on Aug. 4, 2004. At 9:30 a.m. Feb. 28, 2005, in Ramadi, his world changed forever. The armored Humvee he was driving struck an improvised explosive device.

"Stuff happens — we got an IED that day," he says. "It blew a nice little hole in my door. That's the piece that took my arm off at the wrist."

He pauses a moment, playing a mental video.

"I saw my hand on the steering wheel so I reached over and grabbed it," he says. "I stuck it in the cargo pocket of my DCU (desert combat uniform)."

His calf muscles looked like a cougar had bitten a big chunk out of each one. His right elbow was shattered.

He was transported to a surgical hospital halfway between Fallujah and Ramadi.

"I remember telling the doctor there to say good-bye to my wife and family for me," he says. "I said tell 'em I love 'em. He says, 'No, you are going to make it. You've made it this far.'"

That's when Arredondo popped the question to the surgeon, asking if he could reattach his hand.

"He asked me, 'Where's your hand, son?' I said, 'It's in my pocket, sir,'" Arredondo recalls. "He just looked at me and said, 'It's in your pocket?' He looked at me like, 'Whaaaat?'"

The stunned surgeon quickly fished Arredondo's detached left hand out his cargo pocket. Unfortunately, the forearm and hand were too badly damaged to be reattached.

Arredondo was taken to the medical facility in Germany, then to Walter Reed. He was transferred to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he continues to receive treatment.

The sergeant was discharged from the Army in March 2006.

Albarran admits he's a fish out of water when he first steps into the Rogue River drift boat.

"This is my first time fishing — ever," he says.

But he proves a fast learner. He catches four fish on the first day, including an eight-pound coho. He pulls in seven on the second.

"This is great, getting out like this," Albarran says. "This gives me a chance to get out of the hospital, breathe some fresh air."

Like Pannell, he has trouble negotiating the rocky paths along the river, particularly the narrow stretches. And, like Pannell, the former standout high school basketball player who wears Air Jordan tennis shoes under his 6-foot-6 frame isn't about to give in to a rocky path.

"I don't want anyone treating me like a cripple," he says. "Yeah, I might need some help going up the hills through the rocks. But I'll make it."

Spec. Alejandro "Alex" Albarran, 20, originally of San Luis, Ariz., joined the Army in June 2005. He and his wife, Janay, have a daughter, Ilianna, age 2.

A mortar man with the Army's 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., he was deployed to Iraq late in the summer of 2006.

He was driving an up-armored Humvee — no lower armor — immediately south of Baghdad on Oct. 5, 2006, when an IED exploded under his front left tire.

The blast tore off his lower right leg just below the knee. He also suffered a shattered femur, a deep shrapnel wound to his right thigh, a fractured right hip and a crushed left heel.

After his condition was stabilized in a military hospital in Iraq, Albarran was sent to Landstuhl, then Walter Reed. He was later transferred to the military hospital in San Antonio to be closer to home.

He expects to be medically discharged from the Army within six months. He plans to start college in January, majoring in criminal justice.

Albarran wants to become a federal law enforcement officer, perhaps joining the FBI.

A former Marine private first class suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Brande is initially quiet as he floats the river.

"I feel guilty coming because I don't have an amputation or anything like that," he explains. "The first time I went on a trip there were other PTSD guys."

He is silent again, listening to the soothing sound of the river. A Steller's jay scolds him from an incense cedar across the calm stretch just above the rapids.

"My family pretty much disowned me after I joined the Corps," he says, although he acknowledges he has had his troubles since being discharged.

"They weren't too excited I wasn't going on a mission for the church," adds the Utah native. "To this day they haven't called me."

Mike Brande, 22, joined the Marine Corps in August 2003. The Mesa, Ariz., resident trained as an artillery cannoneer. Less than three weeks after completing training in February 2005, Brande, then 18, was rolling as part of the second invasion of Fallujah.

Although Brande declined to elaborate, media reports at the time told of house-to-house combat around the clock.

"We were only a few days into that mission when we had eight Marines on suicide watch from our unit," he says. "It was rough going."

Suffering from battle-related stress, he was sent stateside at the end of April.

"I wasn't there (Fallujah) very long but it was sustained combat," he says.

He will tell you it was long enough for him to see and experience incidents he would rather forget.

"Some people didn't care who they killed," he says as he looks down at his hands. His fingers are laced tightly together.

But just as soon as he starts to open that mental door, he slams it closed again, locking the memory tightly inside.

He picks up a small rock, tossing it into the river.

Brande, who was discharged in April 2004, says he hasn't adjusted well to life after the war.

"I didn't care to go outside, to be around friends or anything anymore," he says. "I lost interest in everything."

He talks of suicide attempts, of ending up in a civilian hospital before being transferred to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

"A lot of Iraq vets with PTSD don't start getting help until they end up in the hospital," he says. "For me, the stress wasn't delayed — it was immediate. Now it's delayed. But I avoided the VA for two years. I was sick of the bureaucratic BS."

He estimates he went through nearly a dozen jobs in a little more than three years, from working in security to telemarketing.

"I don't want to sit around and feel sorry for myself," he says. "I wanted to do something.

"You know someone that needs a cannon shot, just contact me," he adds before throwing another rock in the river.

He plans to visit friends in Alaska early next year.

By the third day on the river, Brande is on top of his game. He's catching fish and ribbing his fellow vets.

"God, I love it out here!" he declares after the drift boat flotilla descends a rapid known as the Devil's Staircase. "Getting back to nature, that's the most healing thing for me."

Like the others, Brande doesn't see his Iraq experience as all bad.

"Our experiences define us, no matter how difficult they are," he says. "I feel like I know myself real well now. Most people don't ever get to know themselves. I think it makes you a stronger person with more empathy for other people.

"There are a lot of positive things you can do to turn the situation around," he adds. "I really feel like I'm at that turning point right now."

Pannell says he wouldn't change his experiences, either.

"Somebody could come up to me tomorrow with a miracle surgery to make everything like it was before I got hurt, but I wouldn't do it," he says. "And I wouldn't change anything about the day I got hit. There is no way I would put somebody else's name on those two grenades.

"It's my problem," he adds. "I can deal with it. I don't know if they could. I'll take it. It's mine."

To a man, the veterans say the ribald ribbing among themselves, perhaps shocking to those who haven't worn the uniform, helps them work through their experiences.

"We understand each other," Albarran says. "Here we can talk all kinds of 'smack' to each other. We don't get offended. We just talk s—- back. If I'm trying to get a laugh out of you, you know everything is all right."

As for the political battles now waging over the war, the four say they weren't fighting for Republicans or Democrats.

"It seems like a lot of the fight now is whether or not the soldiers are dying in vain," Pannell says. "But I would say no soldier ever dies for nothing. Never. That's because it gets to a point where you are there for your buddies that are around you. That's all that matters to you.

"That's what I was fighting for," he adds. "Whether I do or don't believe in the cause, that doesn't matter at that point. All that matters is trying to keep those dudes around to see the next day."

Arredondo agrees.

"We were just doing our job and I did my job to the best of my ability," he says. "All we did was what our country asked us to do. No regrets. We just want respect when we come back. We want to live a normal life like anybody else."

Arredondo, who now works as a benefits liaison for the Wounded Warrior Project, figures getting outdoors with others who have survived combat helps them all work it out.

"It doesn't matter whether you can see the wound or not," he says. "We were all in this together."

Lunch on the fourth day is on a scenic sandbar half a dozen miles downstream from Agness. Fresh bear tracks — a sow and her cub — can be seen crossing the wet sand.

"Rating this from 1 to 10, I'd have to give it an 11," Arredondo says of the trip. "In the military, we slept in the dirt and the sand. To come out here with these great guys on the Rogue and catch these fish . . . oh, man. We're getting memories of a lifetime."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Juan Arredondo, 27, left, and Kevin Pannell, 29, right, fish on the lower Rogue River while guide Bret Clark rows. Four veterans, recovering from severe physical or psychological wounds from the Iraq War, took a four-day float trip that spanned 50 miles. - Paul Fattig