Melanie Kline settled on her living room couch to watch the CBS News show Sunday Morning. It was November 1, 2011. The segments that day included one on a Rockville, Maryland-based group called Team River Runner. The organization, founded in 2004 near Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, introduces wounded active duty and veteran service members to white water kayaking and other river sports. It is a way of helping those torn apart by war gain the confidence to put their lives back together.
The Sunday Morning clip took no more than three minutes. As Melanie watched, she realized she had never before confronted “how young and beautiful these fighters were, and how traumatic their injuries were.”
“What if one of my kids came home like that?” she thought. “What would his future be?”
She saw a man named Gary Love hoist his twenty-something son onto his back.
“You could see he was going to carry his kid wherever he needed to,” Melanie said.
He carried him to a river bank and placed him as gently as you would a baby into the arms of another young vet.
Todd Love, a Marine when he lost both legs and his left arm in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, was then settled into a kayak on the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C. The vet who had taken Todd Love from the arms of his father was named Jared Bolhuis. Jared, who had suffered a debilitating brain injury in Afghanistan, got into the kayak as well. The two wounded young men sat one behind the other in a small, orange craft that looked like it could be easily smashed against the boulders by the roaring waters. But boat and its whooping, grinning, fragile passengers were up to the ride.
Gary took up the story when I met him a few years later. By then, Melanie had acted on her reaction to the Sunday Morning clip and started Welcome Home Montrose, a grassroots project to ease the transition to civilian life for military veterans.
I went to Montrose to find out more about the project. I did, and wrote a book. I also got lessons in parenting in the small western Colorado town with a big heart.
The elder Love was a bit baffled that his son had played a part in Welcome Home Montrose. His son was not trying to point the way for anyone, Gary said.
“He just does what he does,” Gary told me, adding he believes he has cried more than the younger Love ever has over the wartime injury that left him without his legs and left arm.
“As a father, it tears me up to see that my son, at 25, will have to spend the rest of his life with no legs. He proves every day that he can live it. He says he was bored with legs and God evened the playing field,” Gary said. “As a fellow Marine, I can’t be prouder of him.”
“I’ve got a video of my son walking on his hands (one a prosthetic) on a treadmill. Not for any reason. Just because. He figures out how to get around,” the father said.
“The word hero is thrown around quite a lot. My son would say the people who helped him the day he was hurt are heroes. Heroes do extraordinary things under pressure. The young men that come back with their physical and mental injuries, it’s what they do after that makes them heroes. If you reach out and help other people be better, then you’re a hero. Stepping up to the plate and being what God asked you to be no matter what, that’s what makes you a hero.”
After Team River Runner taught his son to kayak, Gary continued to volunteer for the group. He helped on outings even when his son was not along.
“I’ll pick these guys up, I’ll tote them to the end of the world. I’ll get them up on skis and pick them up and get them on again if they fall over. I’ll jump in the water if they flip over on their kayaks,” Gary told me. “You can’t do it because you feel sorry for them. You’ve got to do it because you respect them.”
Gary served three years in the Marines and is the son of a career Marine. He grew up near Parris Island, South Carolina, which has been a Marine post since the late 18th century. After serving in the Marines, Gary went on to operate high-rise construction cranes.
“I’ve always been a rough and tumble type of guy,” he said. “Compassion wasn’t one of my strong suits.”
When his son came back from war, Gary cared for him as he had done in the early days of fatherhood. The elder Love spent two years at his son’s side at Walter Reed. Now, Todd is living an independent life. Gary, back home in South Carolina, said the reservoir of tenderness and patience he discovered within himself while caring for his son later served him well as he cared for his aging, ailing mother.
Gary the father and Melanie the mother each are able to mentor young people who are not their own children.
Gary flew out to meet Melanie in the early days of Welcome Home Montrose. He was so moved by what he saw her trying to do that he telephoned Jared Bolhuis, the man who had introduced his son to kayaking. Gary took a fatherly approach, saying: “Jared, this is some cool stuff going on. You need to meet Melanie.” Jared trusted the elder Love enough to contact Kline. She told him: “Hey, you helped us. You inspired us. Come out and see what we’re doing.”
Jared did go out to Montrose and helped Kline set up her project. Then he returned to his parents’ home in Michigan to consider his next move.
Jared had been injured in 2008, weeks into his deployment in Afghanistan, when a 120-mm mortar exploded five feet from his truck. The concussive wave knocked Jared out. Less than a month later, a 500-pound bomb exploded 40 feet from his truck. Again, Jared was left temporarily unconscious.
Eventually, Jared’s PTSD and traumatic brain injuries forced him to retire at the age of 24 from the Marines, where he had hoped to have a career.
At the age of 12 Jared had come home one day announcing he had gotten himself work washing dishes and busing tables at a restaurant. He commuted the mile to his first job on foot or by bike. As a 17-year-old, Jared had consulted a Marine recruiter and decided to sign up without first discussing his plans with his parents.
“He would find something, he would do it, and, and then he would tell you he had done it,” his father David told me.
His parents glimpsed something of Jared’s old independence when he returned from Colorado, living with them for the first time since he was a teen. But they also saw him stumble at simple things, like paying bills.
“It’s tough for him to remember normal, month to month activities,” his father said.
After a hiatus in Michigan, Jared moved to Florida to enroll in film school. The school emphasized hands-on training and Jared often found himself in the role of first assistant director in off-campus productions and fellow students’ projects. The job, which he had not known existed before he started school, put him in charge of logistics and organizing the rest of the behind-the-camera crew. Jared compared it to leading a squad on the battlefield.
“I feel bound to a life of service. From the Marine Corps to helping get Welcome Home Montrose started to going to film school. It’s just the next tool in my personal crusade.”
One day, he told me, he might even make a movie about Welcome Home Montrose to spread the message about what communities and their veterans can achieve.
His parents are watching with pride and some trepidation.
David told me: “It is a big learning experience, and I think it will continue to be for some time. You have to let him go on on his own and just give him guidance. That’s the hardest part. You can’t catch them all the time.”
His mother Jackie said Jared “is an adult, but I’m still a parent. I struggle with when not to parent too much.”