Maureen reports she and her husband discovered that the Warriors were willing to talk about their injuries.
“We found out quickly that they don’t mind telling you about their experiences,” she said.
Since 2005, the Eatons have been local contact persons for Wounded Warriors visits. This year a contingent of 13 will be on the island July 19-27. Two in the group are teammates who are there to support the Warriors.
Organized during the Middle East conflict trigged by 9/11, Wounded Warriors was created to raise awareness and aid for severely injured soldiers and was expanded to help them acquire veteran benefits, education and other services.
Part of their therapy is exposing them to outdoor activities such as fishing and hunting – activities that some dreamed they could never enjoy again. Because of its multiple wildlife resources, Kodiak Island has become a favorite site of Wounded Warriors.
“They’re so appreciative of Kodiak,” Maureen said.
The Warriors also like Kodiak because here they are not singled out because of their handicaps.
“When they go out and about, people avoid them. When they come here, people are welcoming,” Maureen added. “They told us that when they come to Kodiak they’re not invisible anymore.”
The community welcomes the Warriors and shows them a good time.
Various organizations, businesses and individuals help entertain, feed and house the visitors. Just about every day the guests go fishing. But in case the trips are canceled because of bad weather, the organizers ask volunteers in the community to take guests on sight-seeing tours on the road system, as well as shopping trips, museums visits and other jaunts.
“They go home tired and exhausted from the activities and the sea air, but they love it,” Maureen said.
While the coordinators want to give the Warriors a good time, they don’t want to overwhelm them with too much to do.
The Eatons also encourage members of the community to greet and say farewell to the Warriors at the airport.
“We’d like a good send-off,” said Maureen.
All too often, just a few people show up. In one instance, Maureen was the only who said goodbye to them.
When they learned that the flight would be delayed by an hour and a half, the Warriors told her to go home. However, Maureen insisted that she stay with them until they boarded the departing plane.
During the wait, one of the men – a burn victim—told Maureen his story. He had been blown out of his vehicle in Iraq.
“Everybody left him because he was on fire, and they thought he had died. He waited 16 hours before someone picked him up,” she said.
At the airport he rolled up his pants leg, revealing a thin, bony structure wrapped in shriveled skin. There was hardly any muscle or flesh.
“I don’t know how he could walk,” Maureen added.
A few of the warriors even joke about missing limbs.
One was a double amputee whose legs had been severed so far up that he couldn’t wear prosthetics. He was confined to a wheelchair. That didn’t keep him from going halibut fishing.
“He did well on the boat,” Maureen said.
Once the charter operator pulled into the harbor, the amputee got out of his wheelchair, lay in the grass and soon other Warriors pulled the halibut up to his stumps.
The Eatons and other friends laughed as they took pictures of the man.
“Two older women came up because we were making so much noise,” said Maureen. “They were saying, ‘Why would he do that to those poor fish?’”
The women were shocked when someone pulled the fish away.
Many Warriors have accepted their injuries and can even tease each other about them.
“A lot of them get to the realization that someone else is worse off than they are,” said John. “Some have no legs, but they say, ‘I have a friend who lost both legs and an arm.’ They realize that they’re still alive. A lot of them are learning how to do things differently.” Because of this adjustment, they are able to participate in activities they previously thought were impossible for them.
“It’s very inspiring to see what they’ve gone through, and, in a small way, to be part of an effort to give them a good experience in Kodiak,” John said.
Wounded Warriors’ first trip to Kodiak occurred in 2004, a year after the organization was formed. The Eatons’ friend, Peter Malley coordinated the visit.
The Eatons joined the project in 2005. Because of John’s visibility as a Coastguardsman and active community member, he was able to find and recruit people able to provide boats, ATVs and tour services for the visitors.
John said one of the highlights of the Warriors’ visit is listening to them tell fish stories.
Wounded Warrior television commercials have featured Kodiak visitors, Maureen maintains.
In one of the ads, a man is in a canoe. His wife says how wonderful it is to see him smile again.
John and Maureen have picture of that specific Warrior taken during a bear-viewing trip on Kodiak Island.
“He has a big smile and there’s a bear behind him,” Maureen said.
John said he has gained a deeper appreciation for the island because he has seen it “through someone else’s eyes” — the eyes of those who have seen the ugliness of war that has taken a toll on their own bodies. Yet, through the Wounded Warriors Project, they have learned to laugh again and to affirm that life is good after all.
Mike Rostad is a freelance writer and longtime Kodiakan who writes a weekly column examining the in-depth stories of Kodiak residents. You can read more about other Kodiak islanders in Rostad’s book, “Close to My Heart-Writing and Living Stories on Kodiak Island, Alaska.