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Wounded vets to go on float down the Rogue

Wounded Iraq war veteran Bobby Ehrig looks forward to running the lower Rogue River beginning Saturday morning.

Never mind the 40-year-old Army veteran hasn't floated down a river since he was a teenager in his native Pennsylvania.

Or that he has never battled a leaping steelhead trout or fought a feisty coho salmon, the likes of which are now running in the river's wild section.

"They will be the biggest freshwater fish I've ever fished for," he said during a telephone interview from San Antonio, Texas. "The two times I've gone fishing here was down in the gulf for red fish.

"But I grew up on streams like those in Oregon," he added. "I've hunted and fished since I was about 5. It's been a while, though."

The medically retired master sergeant, severely burned by a suicide truck bomb in Iraq in 2006, is one of 11 wounded veterans who will be guests on a four-day river trip.

Sponsored by Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia dedicated to helping wounded veterans, and aided by Briggs Rogue River Trips of Grants Pass, the adventure begins at Rand and follows the river more than 50 miles through the Wild and Scenic section. Briggs is offering the service at reduced rates.

(Correction: See below)

They will stay at lodges each night, all of which have also reduced their charges.

Freedom Alliance and other similar groups, including Wounded Warriors, have been offering the outdoor excursions around the nation to veterans who suffer either physical or mental wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of the veterans have service-connected injuries, from burns to amputations to combat stress, said Kendra Cummings, a spokeswoman for the event.

"They are from different parts of the country," she said, noting that Freedom Alliance has brought other wounded veterans to the lower Rogue to find peace and tranquility.

"These guys love it — they are looking forward to a great time," she said. "It gives them camaraderie and a chance to not think about their injuries. They deserve it. They are heroes."

While there will be plenty of tranquility, they also will experience a bit of whitewater, including a mile of Class IV water in Mule Creek Canyon. That stretch includes a pair of rocks aptly nicknamed the Jaws, followed by "The Narrows," "Coffee Pot" and the "Picket Fence" at Blossom Bar.

And that is after lining around Rainie Falls — using ropes to lower the drift boats down the fish ladder — some two miles downstream from the confluence of Grave Creek.

Noting that he joined the Army at age 17, Ehrig said he was too busy in the military to have much time for fishing.

Ehrig already served one tour in Iraq in 2006. On Aug. 21, 2006, he was helping recruit Iraq police officers in Ramadi when a truck filled with explosives slammed into the building where training was taking place.

"My guards shot the driver," he recalled.

But the explosives were detonated by a timing device, killing 16 and wounding 56, he said.

Ehrig suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body. He also was diagnosed with traumatic head injury, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before eventually arriving in the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which he noted has the best burn unit in the world. He lives in San Antonio because of the center, he said.

At last count, he has had 22 surgeries to repair the burn damage, said the father of two children born before he was injured. He has been an outpatient for 41/2; years.

"I'm alive," he said in response to a question of how he is faring today.

"But I don't get out much because of the heat down here," he said, referring to the fact his body no longer sweats to keep it cool naturally because of the burns.

Ehrig, who served 17 years in the Army, said he was looking forward to the cooler temperatures on the river.

"It'll be real nice to get out there with other guys," he said, adding, "I haven't been on a river in a long time."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The state Freedom Alliance is based out of has been corrected in this version.