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These veterans are ones to ride with down the river

Contrary to the current political correctness, not everyone who wears a military uniform is a hero.

Take the Marine Corps hitch I completed in 1971. Other than battling what a jarhead buddy described as the happy horsehockey of military life, the toughest enemy I ever fought was a killer hangover.

But Alejandro "Alex' Albarran, Juan Arredondo, Mike Brande and Kevin Pannell are the real deal. These combat veterans have seen first-hand the horrors of war.

After spending four days floating the lower Rogue River with them last week, I came away feeling upbeat about Americans as a people.

It's a feeling I haven't had for a while, given our national appetite of late for never-ending political backbiting by R's and D's alike.

And it wasn't just the veterans who buoyed my soul on the Rogue's healing waters. Consider river guides Bret Clark, Bill Inkrote and John Handley. Or longtime river runner Don Burnison who hopped aboard to offer his river expertise.

Listening to their rich stories of the river, watching them skillfully guide their drift boats and go the extra mile for the veterans made me proud to be a native son of Southern Oregon.

Good people, all.

Albarran, Arredondo, Brande and Pannell put human faces on all the wars our nation has ever fought. They represent the fathers, sons and brothers who have endured combat over the centuries, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq.

This trip was not about supporting or not supporting the war. The river voyage was solely about helping combat veterans recover from their physical or psychological wounds. When we entered the river wild, petty bickering over politics was left back in the "civilized" world.

The four young veterans, all wise beyond their years, remind us that we're all in the boat of life together. They also let us know through their actions that obstacles diminish when you approach them with teamwork and humor.

The latter is an important weapon in this squad's arsenal.

For instance, if you look closely at Pannell's right prosthesis, you'll see a huge Band Aid.

"Yeah, the Army gave me that big Band Aid and some Motrin when I got hurt," the double amputee says, his tongue held firmly in cheek. "They told me to drink plenty of water and I'd be all right."

The foursome could do a stand-up comedy routine with their constant ribbing. Ribbing began at dawn and continued late into the night.

"If I'm trying to get a laugh out of you, you know everything is all right," Albarran explains.

There were also plenty of moments in which the veterans silently admire the scenery as they float along. Deer ambled along the river bank. An otter slid off into the river. Several bald eagles soared overhead.

There is no doubt Brande speaks for all of them when he declares at one point, "God, I love it out here!"

The four Iraq veterans know there are more challenges around the bend, more rapids at the end of life's calm stretches.

"But there are nothing but opportunities out there," Pannell says as he sits along the river bank under the chilly November sun.

With that, he lifts up his sweatshirt to reveal his own hero in the form of a large tattoo of FDR's face across his chest.

"I don't think we'll ever have another president like FDR and it has nothing to do with him being a Democrat," Pannell says. "He was just an amazing dude who overcame tons of obstacles. He was in his early 40s when he got polio. He went through all the struggles. He was depressed and angry at the world.

"But he kicked himself in the ass," he adds. "He realized he couldn't go through life with an attitude like that. When they told him no one would ever get elected president in a wheelchair, he sucked it up, held onto his cane and his son's shoulder and walked into the campaign."

Sadly, it was only shortly before he died that FDR addressed Congress and referred to his disability, Pannell continues.

"He explained that the reason he was sitting in the chair was that it was easier than lugging around 30 pounds of metal," he says. "By then everyone had gotten past his disability. They had accepted the fact he was a damned good president. Nothing else mattered. He was an unreal dude."

Not unlike the four young veterans who rode the lower Rogue River last week.

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