Ronnie Boyd leans back in his kayak and lays his paddle across his lap. His eyes closed, he smiles while the rest of the group splashes their kayaks downstream.
The 50-year-old Iraq War veteran watched others slip these tiny boats into area rivers and creeks all his life and thought he'd like to try it one day.
But it wasn't until his reintegration counselor told him about a class the Chattanooga Recreation Department offered that he took the thought seriously.
The program came out of an $18,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs through the U.S. Paralympic Committee, said Elaine Adams, therapeutic coordinator for the city recreation department. It's aimed at veterans with disabilities ranging from amputations to brain injury to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We're taking veterans and introducing them to the sport of kayaking," she said. "They can forget about everything and just have a good time."
One of Boyd's classmates, Robert O'Daniel, is headed to a regional kayaking get-together today in Bryson City, N.C.
He and another paddling classmate, Jeremy Bankston, will be at the event put on by Team River Runner, a nonprofit group that promotes paddling sports for veterans and their families with a focus on wounded veterans.
The group will provide equipment and guides for paddling on area rivers over the weekend and give veterans a chance to experience the water and some camaraderie.
O'Daniel joined the Army at 17 while still in high school and was sent to Iraq in 2003 with the 4th Infantry Division.
He left the military soon after his tour. Now a Bradley County deputy sheriff, he sought out the class to connect with other veterans.
"People at work, they ask you a million and one questions about what you've been through, where other veterans, they understand and don't have to ask," he said.
Local paddling classes started in January at the Brainerd Recreation Center pool.
The first time in the water, Boyd held tightly to the side of the pool in the longest kayak available. He listened closely to instructors, though, and by the end of the hourlong session was part of a water pololike kayak game.
During the first open-water trip two weeks ago on the North Chickamauga Creek at Greenway Farms, instructors guided students upstream, offering tips that sounded, at times, like life advice.
"Going upstream you can work with the eddy," said instructor Daxton Bacalman. "If an object or rock is coming toward you, remember to always lean towards it. Leaning away from the obstacle can cause you to capsize."
Boyd worked briefly as a convoy commander during a 2009 Iraq deployment with the Tennessee Army National Guard.
When he got home and returned to his work as a chaplain's assistant, he felt as if he'd absorbed trauma vicariously. His schedule was off; he couldn't get out of his military thinking in daily situations.
He returned to school to work on a graduate degree and started seeing a counselor.
That and this paddling class have helped a lot, he said.
At the end of the first day on open water he was wet and still smiling.
"It brought out that kid in me that I haven't seen in a long time. And he was quiet," Boyd said.
Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...