LIGONIER — John Novotnak returned home in 2005 from a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, and he associated sand with the horrors he experienced and witnessed while at war.
Then he took a rafting trip down the Colorado River in September, talking through his issues along the way with a Department of Veterans Affairs social worker.
Now Novotnak associates sand with the beauty he discovered in Arizona and how the trip made him feel.
"I've learned ways of dealing with the anxiety, dealing with the memories, dealing with the things I felt when I came home," said Novotnak, 31, of North Huntingdon during a meeting on Sunday in Ligonier of Canyon Heroes, an organization aimed at helping veterans work through the issues they experience after war by providing them with therapeutic rafting trips down the Colorado.
Margery Hermann, who founded the group, said she got the idea during a trip last year from rafting guides who mentioned that they often take disabled veterans on trips down the river.
Hermann said she has long wanted to do something for veterans and thought this would fulfill that goal.
"I'm hoping it can help these veterans who are coming back with such devastating not only physical but mental conditions," Hermann said.
With the help of friends in Ligonier, she founded Canyon Heroes in March and has been seeking tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
The group has $15,000 in pledged donations, contingent on its becoming a nonprofit, Hermann said.
As her idea was getting off the ground, Hermann approached Jim Fiesta, a clinical social worker with the VA Primary Care Center in Hempfield, about taking the raft trip with one of the veterans he counsels to see how it would work.
"It sounded like a phenomenal idea," Fiesta said. "I know that there's great gains that can be made when you counsel outside an office setting."
Fiesta thought Novotnak, with whom he had been working for about a year, would be a prime candidate.
"I couldn't believe it at first," Novotnak said. "'Is that really for real?' And yeah, it was."
A rafting company donated the trip while fundraising was done to pay for the transportation expenses.
Novotnak, who joined the West Virginia National Guard while studying at West Virginia University, served as an infantryman in the Iraq War.
He spent his time patrolling roads, escorting convoys and searching the roads for improvised explosive devices.
When he came home, normal, everyday things would take him back to the sights, sounds and feelings of war.
Roadkill reminded Novotnak of how insurgents would hide IEDs in dead animals along roadsides. Fireworks and other loud noises would make him hit the ground.
He was always nervous and vigilant about what was going on around him.
"I came to a point where I said, 'I have to do something about this,'" Novotnak said.
And though the counseling sessions in Fiesta's office were helping, the trip down the Colorado set Novotnak on the right path.
"It was quite an experience for the both of us," Fiesta said. "The work that we had been doing together, which revolved around his experiences in the Middle East, really took off on this trip."
Novotnak said he would think of something he wanted to talk about during various times on the trip and be able to talk to Fiesta right away, rather than wait until his next appointment.
"I'd think about something, and we'd just talk," Novotnak said.
"There were times we were sitting on the banks of the river having a counseling session," Fiesta said. "We found ourselves working through so many of the difficult things that John had brought home."
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com