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Wounded veterans coming to state for recreation

By JESSICA FARRISH

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Warriors are in the Mountain State this week to raft West Virginia’s Lower New River, ride a zipline, play golf at Glade Springs Resort and take a tour of the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine.

Those warriors are wounded, injured or seriously ill veterans and active military personnel who are testing their limits after returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 26th Gathering of Mountain Eagles.

Beckley native Forrest “Woody” Aurentz, a retired United States Army officer, is a founder of the “Gathering of Mountain Eagles,” a non-profit group that aims to give adventure activities to the soldiers.

“When we started this organization, we wanted to do two things,” Aurentz said Tuesday. “We wanted to challenge wounded or injured or seriously ill soldiers to do some things that, maybe, they haven’t done before, and their lives are now different than they were before their injuries.

“But more important, it’s other veterans saying ‘thanks,’ citizens saying ‘thanks,'” he said. It really, really is amazing, the difference it makes.”

According to the Veterans Affairs Department, only about 10 percent of post 9/11 vets are officially classified as disabled, due to a high bar set by the government, but about 45 percent of post 9/11 vets have applied for disability benefits.

Thousands of veterans return home with major back injuries, sleep disorders and psychological trauma stemming from post-traumatic stress, according to the VAD statistics.

Aurentz said that  “Gathering of Mountain Eagles” aims to help wounded and injured active duty military personnel and veterans regain skills and confidence in controlled outdoor adventure environments.

Spouses are encouraged to attend, Aurentz said. He added that it’s often a spouse who first contacts the group to ask about the program.

“We do not pretend like we cure anybody, but we do have guys that have been in their houses for over a year, have not left their houses,” he explained. “We have kind of coaxed them out, gradually, introduce some things to them they didn’t think they could do.

“We go to basketball games, and many (veterans) are frankly apprehensive,” Aurentz said.

University officials honor veterans in introduction announcements at the games, he added, and veterans must make the decision to walk in front of the crowd.

“They want to do it, but…for guys who have had traumatic brain injuries and have been hearing some kind of explosive devices going off near people and they see the results of that, being in a crowd is something they never want to do again.

“But when they do it, they can say, ‘I can do that,’ and they see it’s not like their experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said.

Aurentz reported that veterans who have undergone amputations and those who are “totally blind” have come to West Virginia and gone whitewater rafting, skiing at Canaan Valley and ziplining.

“We try to challenge them, to say, ‘You can do these things,'” said Aurentz. “Sometimes it’s a little scary.

“Most soldiers have been on zipline-height things before, but not with their injuries.”

A nine-hole golf game at Glade Springs Resort is always popular.

“The wonderful people at Glade Springs gather up veterans and most of these troops have never played golf before, but they don’t care,” Aurentz reported. “One time, so many people came up and said thanks to them that one (veteran) said, ‘It’s like the whole state of West Virginia came out and said thanks to us.’

“I said, ‘That is West Virginia. If they had the opportunity, they would.'”

The 2017 Gathering of Mountain Eagles opens this evening at Smokey’s on the Gorge in Fayetteville with a BBQ and will continue through July 9.

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