COLUMBIA — On April 6, stocked with donated military meals ready to eat, a solar panel and a cushion, Dan Cook set out on a 3,700-mile rowing expedition down the Missouri River on a small wooden boat. Since then, he's been on the water 15 hours a day, every day.
Cook started his journey in Montana. His destination? The Gulf of Mexico.
"It's not a float trip," Cook said. "These trips are a test both physically and mentally."
Cook's trip is sponsored by Rivers of Recovery, a non-profit program that helps raise awareness for veterans with disabilities. As executive director of the program, Cook is stopping at major metropolitan areas along the Missouri River and visiting veterans' hospitals to get the word out about the physiological benefits of recreational activity.
Rivers of Recovery provides free river expeditions for not only veterans with physical disabilities, but also those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This year, for example, it is inviting veterans to a three-night, two-day fly-fishing trip on the Green River in Utah, according to a program pamphlet.
"I've seen veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we help those from all branches of the military," Cook said.
Through the use of recreational rehabilitation such as fly-fishing and simple exposure to the wilderness, the program helps veterans reassimilate to society.
"(The veterans) come back and receive medical treatment, and then they're kicked out the door considered 'rehabilitated,'" Cook said. "But readjusting back into everyday life is their biggest struggle."
Cook mentioned a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who Cook helped get his first night's rest without the help of sedatives.
Cook looks like a man who's been on the ocean and underneath the intense rays for years. His straight, short hair is dark, yet retains a sun-bleached sandy color resembling that of a surfer.
"One of the things I forgot when I set out in the beginning was that I was going to be on my butt for the majority of the trip, and I'm a little sore," Cook said without an air of actual complaint.
He has "three generations of callouses" on his hands and a tan that resembles that of the Cuban fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea." He prefers sandals, and he never takes off his black sunglasses. His demeanor is unflinching, and he speaks with an absolute confidence in his work and a deep respect for those who've served.
Cook captains a small, 17-foot wooden boat called a dory that he designed and had made in Salt Lake City. Painted on the side is the name Buzz Holstrom, who was a pioneer in river rowing in the 1930s and '40s. The dory has a sturdy design that Cook said was built for whitewater rafting. It has a retractable tent that can be erected in less than a minute for harsh weather conditions and protection against blood-sucking mosquitoes.
Rowing down the river has proved hazardous at times, but Cook insists on rowing in the channel because that's where the current is the fastest. Since he started his trip up in Three Forks, Mont., Cook has endured freezing rain, dense fog, scorching heat and even a blizzard.
He has slept on the dory every night since April 6 and strives to live a life as similar to a soldier's as possible. The solar panel absorbs enough juice to power a cell phone charger, and the food he eats — meals ready to eat, or MREs — cook themselves through a chemical reaction.
"I can't really travel down the river in a luxury yacht, because veterans can't connect," Cook said.
Originally an energy trader on Wall Street for 15 years, Cook found the inspiration to get involved in veteran rehabilitation from his brother, who lost a leg in a farming accident and then went on to win seven medals as a Paralympics athlete.
"Many times people react aesthetically to disabled veterans, thinking that if they're broken on the outside, then they're broken on the inside as well, and that's not true," Cook said.
The rower's next stop is the VA Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Rivers of Recovery seeks to get the families of veterans involved, too, helping to foster enjoyment and relaxation.
"They sign on the dotted line to protect this country, and they come back and they're ignored," Cook said. "So rather than assuming there was a program out there that existed already, I just created one."