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May 19, 2013

Veterans take to the trees

ISU stages weekend fun for vets at Sycamore Outdoor Center

CLOVERLAND — Cristal Bednar took photos of her husband, Justin, as he laboriously climbed his way up a “Dangle-Duo” to get to a zipline at Indiana State University’s Sycamore Outdoor Center.

She and their 4-year-old son, Braeden encouraged Justin on. “Good job,” she said. “Good job,” Braeden said, as his dad made it way up to the top rung, where he would then transition to the zipline platform.

It was no small task for Justin, 29, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq from 2006-08. He suffered lung damage from a gas chlorine bomb while in Iraq and he also sustained traumatic brain injury that has made him forgetful, his wife said.

He received a Purple Heart, she said.

Once Justin Bednar reached the platform, Audra Trnovec helped him transition to the zipline — and he raced through the air as his 4-year-old tried to catch up with him.

“That was pretty incredible,” Justin Bednar said after he was done. The climb was “really tough,” but he had a lot of fun. The family is from Rensselaer.

On Saturday, ISU students and faculty  welcomed several veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their families, to the Sycamore Outdoor Center (formerly known as the ISU field campus) in Clay County. About 65 people, including 25 veterans, attended.

In cooperation with the Wounded Warrior Project, ISU students worked with the post- 9/11 veterans in a variety of outdoor activities, including canoeing, fishing, air rifles, disc golf and the zipline. This is the second year ISU has hosted such an event.

Some of the ISU students are in a diversity in recreation and sport management class, while others assist with the challenge course program offered at the site.

Don Rogers, ISU associate professor and recreation therapy coordinator, is director of the Sycamore Outdoor Center. The number of veterans participating in the program this year has doubled, Rogers said.

The veterans and their families came from throughout Indiana and Illinois.

Some of the participating Wounded Warriors have experienced post traumatic stress disorder or brain injury, some are blind and others have minor physical disabilities.  

Saturday’s program provided an opportunity for veterans to meet other veterans and help expand their support network, Rogers said.

The event included special activities for children, such as face painting and a bounce house.

Cristal Bednar and her son canoed for the first time. The day’s recreational programs “were very relaxing and very nice,” she said.

Justin Bednar attended not only as a Wounded Warrior, but also as a peer mentor to other veterans. “It’s a pretty nice thing they got going on here to integrate Wounded Warriors with other Wounded Warriors,” he said. “Everybody gets an opportunity to share their experience with eachother and you know you’re not battling things alone.”

It’s also an opportunity for spouses, such as his wife, to talk to others who are experiencing the same things, he said.

The program at the field campus provided “a unique opportunity for Wounded Warriors to get together and enjoy camaraderie,” he said.

As a peer mentor, he can share with other Warriors how he has walked in their shoes and he has made it full circle — he has re-integrated with his family, into his job and back to civilian life — and he wants to help them do the same.

Also participating was Dennis Dewey, 45, a Wounded Warrior from Terre Haute who served in Iraq with the Indiana Army National Guard.

“This is the greatest thing in the world,” Dewey said of the recreational events and the opportunity to meet other veterans.  

He came with his son, 8-year-old Hunter, and wife Tracy.

He said it’s nice to have other veterans to talk to, who will understand what he’s been through. “Some bad stuff happened over there — some good stuff, too,” Dewey said.

Robert Lee, 47, who lives in Lafayette, came with his wife, Nicole, and sons Micah, Owen and Gabriel. He served with the army in Iraq from 2005-07.

Saturday’s events were a good way to relax with his family, “and it’s nice being around other veterans, too,” Lee said.  

Among the ISU students assisting was Kelsey Shanks, who majored in recreation management/youth leadership; she has graduated but still must complete an internship.

It’s her second year to do the Wounded Warriors program. “I really believe in the [Wounded Warriors] organization,” she said. “I feel what they do for the Warriors is amazing.”

Working with the veterans provides her and other students with a new perspective, she said. The students have to learn how to accommodate whatever challenges the veterans may have to help them succeed at the various recreational activities.

She would like to work for the Wounded Warriors  Project someday, she said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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