Walking down a long, rough driveway surrounded by plants sprouting from the sand, Jude Recendez said, “I would never picture New York like this.”
The 29-year-old Californian took his first trip to New York City for a weekend of fishing, sailing, kayaking, scuba diving and water skiing at the Rockaway Point Yacht Club in Breezy Point. The fact that he has two prosthetic legs didn’t slow him down.
Recendez, a retired Army sergeant, lost both legs during an explosion in Iraq nearly three years ago. Last weekend, he was one of 39 “wounded warriors” in the Rockaways for the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project’s fifth annual Adaptive Water Sports Festival. The “warriors” consisted of combat veterans who sustained permanent injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan — many of them amputees — though the event is open to any wounded veteran, regardless of where the injury occurred.
WWDSP is a partnership between Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that began when a group of volunteers brought backpacks full of clothes to wounded soldiers in Washington’s Walter Reed Medical Center, and Disabled Sports USA, a 42-year-old group that serves more than 60,000 people with disabilities each year.
“It’s just another source of therapy for injured soldiers to enjoy life,” Recendez said. “You can kind of go batty when you’re chilling, staring at four walls.”
WWP Deputy Executive Director Al Giordano, a retired Marine himself, said WWDSP events keep the veterans’ morale up and improve their self-confidence.
“When you’ve got guys your age who lost both legs, and you’ve got them swishing down the mountain in Colorado, skiing, they think, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,’” he said.
Army Spc. Manny Pina, 37, lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident about a year after he returned from Iraq. He heard about the program while being treated at Walter Reed and eventually decided to participate in its annual ski trip in Breckenridge, Colo.
“Being from Puerto Rico, I never skied in my life,” said Pina, who currently lives in Central Pennsylvania. “I told my wife, if I don’t like it, at least I got a free trip. But I fell in love with skiing.”
Pina kept at it and now works as a ski instructor at Liberty Mountain Resort in Carroll Valley, Pa. After this weekend’s festival, becoming a certified scuba diver is next on his list.
“Just because I lost a leg, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world,” he said.
Beyond giving veterans like Recendez and Pina athletic outlets, the program is about keeping the community involved and making sure the youngest generation of veterans is better taken care of than those who served in the Vietnam War, Giordano said.
“The government’s not good at the warm fuzzies; that’s what the community is for,” Giordano said. “[Rockaway] is a patriotic community. This is a community that observed great loss on 9/11 and know young women and men who continued the fight that started out that day. They consider these guys and gals family. The outlying warmth and hospitality — I just can’t say enough about it.”
The festival — which also included a parade, dinner cruise, block party fundraiser and tour of Manhattan — was made possible by hosts and local organizers, The Graybeards. The group consists of more than 150 Rockaway men dedicated to community service and promoting a deeper appreciation of Americanism. Volunteers did everything from driving vans to serving as host families.
“It’s humbling,” Recendez said. “It’s a great honor, tribute, however you want to put it. It’s just amazing.”