WAIKIKI — Sunday morning the stretch of beach, here, was abuzz with the usual traffic of locals and tourists alike headed out for a day of surf, sand and sun.
But the lawn behind Fort DeRussy was especially alive with the sounds of a live band and the excited energy of 40-plus canoe crews, event planners and nearly 800 spectators getting ready for the launch of the Wounded Warrior Canoe Regatta, one of the kick-off events of the 12th annual Duke’s OceanFest.
Organized by Malama Na Koa, a Wounded Warrior support program, the regatta has become a highly anticipated event ever since its inception in 2009 as a means to assist recovering troops through the “healing power” of Hawaiian waters.
“The Na Koa Wounded Warrior Canoe Regatta gives us a chance to introduce those who have sacrificed so much to the people who want to help and want to partner with them in their corporations,” said David Livingston, regatta chairperson and president of event sponsor the U.S. Navy League-Honolulu Council.
“These young men and women have given so much,” Livingston continued. “It’s now time to repay them by allowing them an opportunity that matches their talents and their enthusiasm for life.”
“It is our obligation to pay these heroes back with respect and to honor them with our aloha during their time of need,” added Ed Kubo, former U.S. attorney and regatta organizer.
“It can never be said too often when we say, ‘Thank you for your service and for the freedoms we enjoy,’” Kubo continued. “This is why we will continue to seek to help our military and their families.”
The day’s competition consisted of six-person teams going head-to-head in four separate races between the Hale Koa and the U.S. Army Museum.
Participants included Wounded Warriors and active duty service members from all branches of the U.S. military, as well as veterans who had previously served in the armed forces and high school students from Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, Hawaii Sea Cadets, Hawaii Civil Air Patrol and Hawaii Youth Challenge Program.
Ultimately, the spoils went to the following victors:
•Army, Wounded Warrior Race;
•Coast Guard, Active Duty Race;
•Kehiakahoe Canoe Club, Veterans Race; and
•Punahou High School JROTC, Youth Race.
However, according to Maj. Ray O’Donnell, cadre, Warrior Transition Battalion, Tripler Army Medical Center, all participants came out winners.
“I think it’s an incredible event,” O’Donnell said. “For me, personally, as a former warrior in transition, it’s really neat to see these types of events that are tied in both historically and culturally to Hawaii, and that give an alternate physical therapy event to these Soldiers as they’re striving to recover and remain on active duty, or those who are striving to transition into the civilian world and working toward becoming productive members of the community.”
O’Donnell has been on both sides of the WTB, as both a Soldier in healing and as a cadre whose mission it is to help Soldiers heal.
In 2007, he was ejected from a humvee while deployed to Afghanistan, sustaining polytrauma injuries and “essentially was broken head to toe.” After eight months in the hospital as an inpatient, O’Donnell continued the recovery process in the WTB, based at Schofield Barracks, before returning to active duty with the 25th Infantry Division.
When a position became available, recently, to serve with the WTB, O’Donnell saw it as the “perfect opportunity for me to give back to the organization that helped me as I was going through my recovery,” he said.
Another opportunity presented itself to the WTB, earlier this year — the chance for Wounded Warriors to be involved in a healthy, therapeutic training program out on the ocean in an outrigger canoe.
“There’s no better way to start your day than on the water,” said Kimo Wheeler of the nonprofit Ka Mamalahoe Canoe Club.
A retired command sergeant major with the Army, as well as a combat veteran, Wheeler explained that the canoe club uses modern canoe training regimens, with a heavy emphasis on the culture, traditions and spiritual aspects of early Polynesian canoe voyagers, to assist in training, inspiring and rehabilitating Soldiers with the WTB.
Training is designed on educating each Soldier on the proper techniques, training and understanding of all aspects of the sport, ultimately allowing him/her to regain and maintain physical fitness through on-water therapy.
“We’ve seen them react to it in tremendous style,” Wheeler said, noting that since the program began in April, Wounded Warrior Soldiers have completed several long-distance canoe races, including the 16-mile Ka Mamalahoe Challenge from Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai out to Ke‘ehi Lagoon.
“The physical aspect, it’s incredibly challenging,” O’Donnell said, “but to see my crew getting better than where we started, and to see us gel and coalesce as a team, it’s incredible.”
“Everybody comes together and paddles as one in a canoe, and I think that’s the big thing — maintaining that team spirit within a wa‘a (canoe), within a unit, that makes (this training) more effective,” Wheeler added.
“What’s so great about this sport is the team aspect,” O’Donnell agreed. “You’re out on the water, which is a healing environment, and Soldiers are working together with other Soldiers, as well as with veterans and civilians. You’re getting to interact and socialize with other groups, which I think is important to the healing process.”