OHIOPYLE, Pa. — Enjoying life: it’s just one of the things they went to war to preserve.
Last week, a group of veterans came together to seek adventure and savor the day as a unit by hitting the rapids of the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle State Park.
One of those veterans, Gail Schnell, who is a U.S. Army veteran from the Washington, D.C., area, said she looked forward to the trip because getting together with other veterans is one of the things she really misses about the military.
“Taking this adventure and sharing these stories is really a great experience,” Schnell said.
The trip, which ran from Oct. 4 to Oct. 7, is part of a program hosted by Gathering of Mountain Eagles, a nonprofit group of former soldiers and their family members, who established the all-volunteer organization to provide challenging adventure activities and recreational and relaxation experiences for those who fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Desert Storm and Vietnam.
Schnell couldn’t say enough about the folks at Gathering of Mountain Eagles.
“They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk,” said Schnell, who served in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Forrest (Woody) Aurentz, U.S. Army (retired), originally from Beckley, West Virginia, is one of the group’s founders.
He said the program plans trips for veterans and their spouses four or five times a year.
This trip, which included the rafting trip at Ohiopyle, included veterans and spouses from seven different states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
This excursion included the whitewater rafting experience at Ohiopyle, a visit to Fort Necessity in Farmington, a more relaxing bowling competition in Morgantown, West Virginia, followed by tailgating and attending the WVU vs. Kansas football game on Saturday, where the group was introduced on the field prior to the game and honored and thanked for their service.
Aurentz said their trips consistently include two things: a physical challenge for veterans who have been wounded, injured or fallen ill (many times with post-traumatic stress disorder) in combat and an event where communities have the opportunity to show the veterans their appreciation.
The physical challenge part of the trip is important because it brings everyone together to share the experience.
“When they’re finished today, they will be a group just like a military unit,” Aurentz said.
The rafting trip was organized through Ohiopyle’s White Water Adventures, which has partnered with the group for many years. Aurentz said when they plan the trip, rafting guides from the company, many who are veterans themselves, are anxious to volunteer to help.
Individuals who go on the trip three times are presented with a gold dog tag, which is symbolic of the challenge coins given in the military, according to Aurentz.
Jim Greenbaum, a gold dog tag honoree who has accompanied the group on at least five rafting trips, said they really enjoy the day.
“They are a bunch of fun guys,” Greenbaum said. “They are here to experience life in our part of the world and enjoy it. They don’t have to worry about anything except rafting.”
According to Aurentz, this trip was the organization’s 42nd over the 10-year history of the organization, involving 332 veterans and spouses.
In addition to the fall trip, the group also plans a fishing excursion in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland in November, skiing and a basketball game in the Canaan Valley in West Virginia in February, another rafting experience on the Chattooga River from “Deliverance” fame in South Carolina in April and a zipline and golfing trip in West Virginia in July.
All of the excursions are free to the veterans and their spouses. The organization works year-round to do fundraisers, find sponsors and write grants to ensure that the veterans get to experience the program at no cost to them.
They also partner with companies like White Water Adventures who offer the group a discount to keep costs down. Aurentz said some businesses offer them their services at no cost.
Todd Meckley, 44, of New Castle, an 18-year veteran with the U.S. Army, came on the trip with his wife Mindy. Meckley said he really enjoys coming together with other veterans for the program. He’s been on quite a few excursions, but for him one really stands out.
“We were at a West Virginia basketball game and the (public address) system went out and we sang the Star Spangled Banner,” Meckley said.