Canyon trip organized by Ligonier woman offers life-changing journey for veterans

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 12:27 p.m.

A group of 11 area veterans learned firsthand recently what it feels like to leave behind the outside world and daily stress when they participated in a week-long excursion on the Colorado River made possible by Canyon Heroes, a local, newly formed nonprofit organization.

According to the group's organizer, Margery Hermann of Ligonier, it is dedicated to helping wounded veterans by providing them with an opportunity to help recover from their combat experiences while rafting through the spectacular Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. Adaptive outdoor recreation, combined with professional counseling, can help veterans adjust, decompress and shed their complex responses that are related to everyday events.

“This experience that the veterans have had with the civilians is a landmark. In all my research, going back almost 40 years, I have not documented any group that has conducted a trip with veterans and civilians, especially in such a close and challenging environment,” Hermann said.

Two rafts, one with veterans and one with civilians was led by Hatch River Expeditions of Flagstaff, Az. The civilians saw veterans in a whole new way and not as pictured on television, according to Michael Stovall of Ligonier.

“We veterans were able to see the civilians in a new light as not spitting on us as it had happened when we returned from Vietnam,” said Stovall. “Thank God the younger veterans are not treated that way today.”

Stovall said every day was a new day with a new challenge.

“I have been to the Grand Canyon several times but never in a raft at the bottom on the Colorado River. Looking at billions of years of what has happened in the Canyon has made me look at life in a totally different way. To see it this way was not only beautiful but spiritual as well.”

The group spent time getting to know each other's military experiences and despite the age gap the older veterans knew the life challenges some of the younger ones faced in the coming years.

“The trip I know from my point of view was a life changing experience, on many levels just seeing the interaction with the veterans was great in itself,” said Bill Pribisco of Ligonier. “And the civilians that were on the other boat started a good dialog about their knowledge of veterans issues in their own families and how they deal with them.”

Many of the vets met for the first time at the airport. Pribisco said getting to know each other and travel together took him back to his military days where one had to adjust quickly to get things done and help each other.

“I watched as we pulled together and relied on each other as we were trained to do in the military. Knowing that people cared made me feel that my military service was being honored,” said Pribisco.

He said he saw how this trip was worthwhile when he heard other veterans open up to each other.

“I know that this experience can help other veterans,” said Pribisco. “It can help them feel that their military service was worthwhile and that they have not been forgotten.

As a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, Mike Kelly of Seward said it was many years before he sought help or even had a place to go seek treatment. Spending time with other Vietnam vets was another opportunity to acknowledge that he was not alone on this road.

“It was gratifying to see the younger Army and Marine vets from Iraq and Afghanistan who are now able to receive the necessary initial diagnoses and therapy so much sooner than I did,” said Kelly, who has physical disabilities, including peripheral neuropathy in his hands and feet, which make balance, walking and using his hands difficult. “My sisters were very worried that I would not be able to ride the Hatch Expedition raft or camp out. But their fears were put to rest almost immediately at the Pittsburgh airport when the group began to offer me help. I was one of them — a soldier.”

Kelly said the veterans were able to communicate easier with the counselors from Riverstone Counseling of Greensburg than by meeting in an office or clinical setting. He said having sessions combined with the physical activities of rafting and camping in the beauty and serenity of the Grand Canyon added to the trip.

“As our bodies were worked and became tired and relaxed, so, too, did our minds,” said Kelly.

Jim Fiesta, a clinician on the expedition said the experience provided a better picture concerning the needs of veterans and how they can benefit from an outdoor-based, supportive, counseling experience.

“The benefits of being part of this experience are unmatched compared to other counseling settings,” said Fiesta. Donations are welcome and may be sent to Canyon Heroes, PO Box 404, Ligonier, PA 15658.

Deborah A. Brehun is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-238-2111 or

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