Putting it on the line

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

After injuring his back, shoulder and head in Iraq in 2009, it was a while before J.D. Bowser smiled much. During an Operation Second Chance outing Aug. 15 along the Pine River, he smiled plenty. Guide Duke Quinn offers advice to the military veteran.

ALONG THE PINE RIVER

The sun’s out, shoes are off, and she’s reclining in a deck chair. She has just opened a novel, the bubbling Pine River providing a soothing background melody.

Pauline Bowser hasn’t had many days like this for the last several years. Certainly not since her husband, J.D. Bowser – who is close by, learning to fly-fish from the river bank – deployed to Iraq with the New Mexico Army National Guard in 2009.

They’re enjoying this idyllic, mid-August day along the Pine thanks to the good hearts and generosity of a string of people, beginning with a Maryland woman who “just wanted to make a difference” and continuing with a La Plata County trio who put this trip together. Four wounded veterans and their wives are enjoying three days of activities and some much-needed R&R as they attempt to put their disrupted lives back together.

Cindy McGrew created Maryland-based Operation Second Chance, which those in the know call OSC, to raise the spirits of veterans ensconced at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

J.D. Bowser was unloading a truck in the rain on that October day in 2009 when he slipped and fell, slamming his back on the tow bar, then turning in the air and smacking the ground face-first. Despite damage to his right shoulder, head and back, he continued to do his duties until the pain became too great.

He ended up at Walter Reed. Shoulder and back surgery, and ensuing complications, brought months and months of misery.

J.D.’s first trip off the hospital base was a fishing expedition with Operation Second Chance.

“It was the first time I’d seen him smile in months,” Pauline says. “It tattooed OSC across my heart, and it’s been there ever since.”

Pauline has become such a believer in the nonprofit that she now does social media for Operation Second Chance.

McGrew, president and founder of Operation Second Chance, became involved in soldiers’ well-being when a friend served in Iraq in June 2004. Seven men in his unit, part of the Stryker Brigade, were ambushed and wounded in an alley. McGrew went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and knocked on hospital room doors to see how she could help the soldiers and their families.

Many were 18- to 22-year-olds whose parents dropped everything to tend to their wounded kids.

“I guess what really struck me is when I saw parents standing in the hall crying and wondering how they were going to make their mortgage payment back home, or keep the electricity going.”

She began taking the soldiers outside the hospital – to Gettysburg, to Mount Vernon, to pro baseball games. She watched as citizens thanked the soldiers for their service, and noted how positive the experience was.

“They’re hurting inside,” says McGrew, noting that the suicide rate for active soldiers has dramatically increased. She says, “It’s not like once they get out, they’re all healed.”

She realized the only way to help on a larger scale was to found a nonprofit. Operation Second Chance makes hospital visits and hosts day trips in the D.C. area. Wounded soldiers who are discharged or are outpatients go on retreats as far away as Montana, Texas, Florida and Alaska. This was the first time the nonprofit had visited Colorado, and it was the result of a big effort from myriad donors and businesses, but spearheaded by a motivated trio.

John Jarrett of Bayfield is a retired Air Force chief master sergeant. He learned of Operation Second Chance through a friend in Tennessee, whose friend in Montana was hosting a retreat.

Jarrett enlisted the help of locals Carolyn Plested and Susie Fisher, and, in three months, they had organized a Southwest Colorado retreat to include a train ride, fly-fishing and a visit to Mesa Verde National Park.

“Our motto from the beginning is, ‘We’re here for them,’” Jarrett says during an interview at Carolyn and Bill Plested’s home along the Pine River – the site of the day’s fly-fishing outing. “We want this to be an experience where they know there’s life after wounds and hospitals.”

The trio was apprehensive about asking businesses and private individuals for donations. Fisher says they were never turned down.

Plested says, “It’s been very, very touching to see the community step up to reply to our request.”

Their goal is to expand the program in 2013, possibly holding April and September retreats.

The four soldiers and their wives aren’t used to being so carefree. Eric and Sara Moriarty, for example, left their three daughters with the grandparents in Fredericksburg, Va.

Eric Moriarty served the Army for 12 years, doing two stints in Afghanistan, the first in 2002. During a training jump in 2006 at Fort Bragg, N.C., he landed awkwardly, his knee bending the wrong way. His leg had to be amputated below the knee.

“I dreamed of being a soldier growing up, so I wasn’t ready to give that up,” he says.

The sergeant first class returned to Afghanistan in 2009 with a prosthetic leg. But an infection developed and he lost the knee and acquired a second prosthetic. This time his military career was over.

Sara is almost in shock at the peace and quiet along the Pine River. It’s been a long time since she’s relaxed for several days straight. After dinner the night before in Durango, she and Eric held hands and walked around downtown.

“That sounds probably pretty silly, but I don’t remember the last time we held hands,” she says.

Eric Moriarty is having so-so results, but he’s eager to find the next fishing hole.

“I’ll stay out here all day till I catch something,” he says.

The road to recovery can last years, and it’s not always easy to imagine a positive outcome. Operation Second Chance wants to help wounded veterans get at least a glimpse of how good life can be again. And on this warm, sunny day along the bucolic Pine River, life is definitely good.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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