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Wounded warriors take time to heal

Camping trip helps rehabilitate injured Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Last year, Cody Conway caught a 19-inch brown trout, while fishing at the Horseshoe Bar Preserve. “It was a beautiful, beautiful fish,” he said. Conway spent three days camping at the preserve, located near Foresthill, about 25 miles outside Auburn. The preserve boasts 50,000 acres and five miles of private trout water below Oxbow Dam on the middle fork of the American River. “A lot of the other guys enjoyed gold panning, but the most important part for me was getting on the water in nature and relaxing and fishing,” Conway said. The serene setting was a far cry from the horrors he saw in war. As a U.S. Marine, he served in the initial assault of the Iraq war. He was on the frontlines, among the first to cross the border and enter Baghdad. The 2009 trip to the Horseshoe Bar Preserve wasn’t a typical camping trip for Conway, or the other men who participated. The seven men are all injured Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Together, they camped, ate, shared stories, and learned the art of fly-fishing and gold panning as part of an inaugural local Wounded Warrior event, a program for young veterans who return from war with serious physical and mental injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Granite Bay resident Tom Bartos founded the Horseshoe Bar Preserve in 2007 and will once again host the event, this time for four days. “These men say it’s the best thing that’s happened to them since they’ve been back from the war,” Bartos said. In January 2009, Bartos attended a fly-fishing show in San Francisco where he ran into Nick Strelchuk of Reel Life Recoveries, who had previously worked with the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, based in Florida. The two started talking. They decided to host a veteran’s event at the preserve. They located Sgt. Conway, who assembled the veterans, including four others from Roseville and two from the Bay Area. Those veterans slept in tents — difficult for men in wheelchairs — but this year they’ll sleep in newly built cabins. “It’s very humbling,” Bartos said. “The (veterans) give so much and they’re so appreciative. They can’t say thank you enough, but you feel like you’ve done nothing. At the campsite, you hear these stories and see these people — they’re kids, really — it’s hard emotionally. These kids are so great.” Organizers have spent more than three months preparing for this year’s event, and Bartos would like to see the gathering become more than a once-a-year function. “It’s a challenge, but a labor of love,” Bartos said. “I want to do it all my lifetime.” Fellow organizer Conway has participated in seven Wounded Warrior events across the United States, including a fly-fishing expedition in Wyoming earlier this month. Raised in Roseville, Conway graduated from Woodcreek High School in 2000. He, his wife and their three-month old daughter recently moved to Fernley, Nev. to buy a house. But he’ll be back for Wounded Warrior. “(The best part) is to be in a safe environment, let our guard down, be among friends and be out in nature that’s so calming and beautiful after seeing such a hellish situation,” Conway said. At 17 years old, Conway enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He didn’t even finish summer break after graduating from high school before heading off to boot camp. “It was a childhood dream to be a Marine, to be the best of the best,” he said. Conway ended up serving five years in the military. What he witnessed in war made him realize just how quickly life can be taken away, he said. “It was once said, ‘War is hell,’” Conway said. “It caused me to grow up fast.” In April 2003, he suffered a serious injury in a non-combat incident. He and some fellow soldiers attempted to remove a tank engine out of a vehicle during a sand storm. The sand shifted and the engine lurched forward. Conway stepped in front as the other men moved away. The engine kept pushing and took Conway along with it. The accident severely damaged his shoulder, stomach, knees and back. He’s had two massive surgeries and likely needs a third. His second injury occurred outside Baghdad when American soldiers were in a heavy ambush and fired at from every direction, he said. His head and shoulders were outside the vehicle. A blast hit 10 feet away from him, knocking him back in the tank and flipping him around. Conway suffered a traumatic brain injury. He said he has no concept of time, poor concentration and difficulty multi-tasking. He struggles with short and long-term memory loss. He was released from active duty in 2005 and continues to undergo therapy. “One of the things I do is help other people,” Conway said. “That’s my treatment too. … I started helping veterans about two years later. But that turned from getting information for them to get their benefits to taking them to Wounded Warrior.” This year, the local organizers expect about six veterans, including one female veteran. Conway said he’s excited to once again see veterans undergo mental and physical progress. “It was amazing,” Conway said. “All the guys said it was a life-changing experience. It gave the guys a chance to open up and open their eyes and come back into society.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- What: Wounded Warrior event When: Monday, Oct. 11 to Thursday, Oct. 14 Where: Homeshoe Bar Preserve in Foresthill Cost: Free. To sponsor or attend the event, please contact Tom Bartos at (916) 205-6073 or e-mail hbp@surewest.net Info: visit www.horseshowbarpreserve.com or www.woundedwarriorproject.org