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Wounded warriors hit the water for annual Rockaway festival

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Photo gallery

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Scuba diving instructor Robin Wertheiner (l.) assists Cpl. Bobby Loria in a scuba diving tank during the Wounded Warrior Project event. Photo by Ken Maldonado
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Ralph Marche (r.), an adaptive kayaking instructor, explains to Cpl. Alfredo De Los Santos the basics of kayaking during the Wounded Warrior Project. Photo by Ken Maldonado
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Cpl. Jason Wheeler gives the dive tank a thumbs up. Wheeler lost the use of his legs below the knee in a helicopter incident. Photo by Ken Maldonado
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Instructors and participants are visible in the dive tank. Photo by Ken Maldonado
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Cpl. Alfredo De Los Santos (l.) gets suited up with a lfe preserver to go kayaking. Photo by Ken Maldonado

Cpl. Jason Wheeler smiled and laughed as he strapped on his goggles while he was poolside in Breezy Point Saturday. Before continuing his efforts to become a master scuba diver, Wheeler took a breather to share his story on what brought the New Hampshire native to New York.

“The Wounded Warriors Project is doing things for all of us that gives our lives back,” Wheeler said. “Here, you are the same as anyone else.”

The Wounded Warrior Project, established to honor and empower injured veterans, visited Rockaway last weekend with nearly 50 participants for its eighth annual adaptive water sports festival. Veterans spent the weekend with friends and family learning different activities, including waterskiing, surfing and other water sports.

Wheeler, who lost the use of his legs from the knees down, said he never felt an interest in scuba diving before starting last weekend at the beadiver.com pool, but with his new interest came a newfound sense of freedom, he said.

“In the water, there is no handicap,” Wheeler said. “Nothing can hold you back.”

The weekend kicked off with a parade last Thursday when the veterans were escorted along streets lined with supporters from Rescue 5 Fire Station in Staten Island and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, before concluding at a private event hosted by the Belle Harbor Yacht Club in Queens.

“We are honored to return to Rockaway for an event that is one of the highlights of the year to provide a wonderful weekend for these warriors,” said Al Giordano, deputy executive director of the Wounded Warrior Project. “The entire community has a great history of honoring servicemen and women.”

Rich Stieglitz, executive vice president of physical health and wellness, said he helped strive to provide the best of the best in water instructors for the wounded veterans.

“It really is incredible,” Stieglitz said. “It takes our breath away to serve our wounded warriors.”

The event, which touted heavy support from wounded veterans support group Legends in Valor, the Fire Department of New York, the Graybeards, the New York Police Department and the city Parks and Sanitation departments, turned Breezy Point into a haven of celebration and activity over the weekend.

Flip Mullen, of the Legends in Valor, said the Rockaway community has become known for its generosity towards the Wounded Warrior Project, opening homes for the nearly 50 veterans and their families throughout the weekend.

“The people of this community open their houses and hearts to these veterans and sometimes form lifelong relationships because of it,” Mullen said. “We are trying to give these guys the best homecoming they had never gotten.”

Mullen, a retired city firefighter from Belle Harbor, also works as a ski instructor and said working with the war veterans was as rewarding as it was inspiring.

“It is just one small act for us to say thank you and show our appreciation,” Mullen said.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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