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Veterans tell of healing power of Canyon Heroes outings, camaraderie

| Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Richard Shaw smiles while taking part in a panel discussion about the Canyon Heroes program on Sunday, November 3, 2013, in Ligonier.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Joe Byers moderates a panel discussion about the Canyon Heroes program on Sunday, November 3, 2013, in Ligonier.

Laura Offerman was the lone woman in an Army troop of 150 men in Iraq.

On her return home, she said, she had low self-esteem and difficulty in relating to other women.

“It was very different for me coming back because I had lost my identity,” said Offerman, who served in 2008 and 2009 as a combat medic.

Now a bubbly Greensburg resident, Offerman credits her turnaround to a seven-day rafting trip sponsored by the Ligonier nonprofit Canyon Heroes.

“I'm just so thankful for this,” the Alabama native said.

She and four other veterans who took part in the August journey on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon shared their gratitude on Sunday during a forum attended by about 30 people in Ligonier.

Canyon Heroes offers seven-day expeditions for veterans who are struggling with issues related to past deployments, such as a disability, depression or substance abuse.

About 50 donors chipped in to fund the August trip for 11 veterans and three therapists, organization President Margery Hermann said. The summertime trip was the organization's first for a large group.

The group is raising money to send 24 veterans on an expedition in 2014. Hatch River Expeditions in Arizona guides the trips. Days consist of hiking, rafting, meals and therapy sessions.

The sessions proved to be important to Michael Stovall, an Army veteran and Missouri native who lives in Ligonier.

“I never spoke about my time in Vietnam,” which lasted from 1967-69, Stovall said. “I battled with that for 40-something years.”

Michael Kelly, also an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, came home to Seward from the August trip a changed man.

“I don't stay inside like I did (before),” said Kelly, who was involved in two helicopter crashes between 1964 and 1967 while in Vietnam. “It was really a meaningful thing.”

Hermann created the nonprofit after her fourth Colorado River rafting trip in 2011 as a way to help veterans who have a disability as a result of their service.

“You're in complete solitude down there,” she said, which provides time for participants to reflect and open up about their combat experiences.

Ligonier photographer and Army veteran Bill Pribisco of Stahlstown captured the group's trip through photos.

“I had hesitations about going, because I know I'm going to miss work,” said Pribisco, who served at Fort Hood, Texas, and in Germany between 1974 and 1978.

Robert Shaw of Greensburg said he's gotten in contact with old friends and his marriage has improved since the trip. He served with the Army National Guard for seven years and was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and 2009.

Because the guide service runs two rafts at a time on the Colorado River, the veteran group was paired with an equal contingent of civilians.

Though wary of each other at first, the veterans said some members of the two groups intermingled by the end of the trip. Although decades separated some of the veterans, many found their experiences and the after-effects to be the same. Stovall said he and an Iraq-era veteran even carried the same weapon.

“They had the same problems that we had; it's just a different time zone,” Stovall said.

Many of the veterans keep in touch with each other, their bond going beyond the seven-day excursion.

“I'm so thrilled to death to see these people today,” Stovall said. “It's like a long-lost family.”

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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