Carolyn Chunyo started rowing four years ago even though she wasn’t interested in the sport.
“I had transitioned. I wasn’t feeling it. I was struggling,” said Chunyo, who returned home to Cleveland after serving in the Army Reserves. “How do I fit? I grew up here but I couldn’t adjust. I realized that I see the world through a veteran’s eyes. It’s different than for my friends who lived here their whole lives. I felt isolated.”
Thanks to encouragement from her sister, Chunyo participated in activities outside her home, including a learn-to-row program. Still, she was worried about injuries and surgeries that have compromised her balance and hearing.
“You’re going to put me in a tippy boat?” Chunyo wondered at the time. “But I got in the boat and I loved it. Transition and fitting into a civilian word can be tough. Rowing is why I get out of bed. I have a team depending on me. It’s back to how I felt in the military. Rowing is the reason I am still walking the face of the earth.”
Now, Chunyo is the captain of the Cleveland Freedom Rows rowing team. On Sept. 18, The American Legion Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program unveiled the team’s new boat at one of the largest regattas in the country, the Head of the Cuyahoga Regatta in Cleveland. The Cleveland Rowing Foundation hosts the regatta every year. The foundation has been working with the Western Reserve Rowing Association to grow its veteran league rowing program.
The $32,000 OCW sponsorship covers the eight-person shell, which is 62 feet long and weighs 400 pounds, the oars and rack. It also includes a trophy that will be presented each year indefinitely to the winning team in the eight-person veterans race.
In a riverside ceremony, American Legion National Commander Paul E. Dillard christened the U.S.-made boat, which will be used only by teams of veterans.
“Operation Comfort Warriors lets us bring The American Legion to the individual veterans and fulfill their needs,” Dillard said. “At the same time, Operation Comfort Warriors lets us do the things we want to do to support veterans in need.”
The daylong event, now in its 25th year, featured two veterans races among the approximately 60 that were held in the Cuyahoga River. One crew was made up entirely of blind athletes. Overall, there were 400 entries, thousands of athletes and thousands more fans cheering them on.
“For veterans with disabilities, they might not be able to get out,” Dillard said. “That’s what this is about. We’re getting them back into society. I’m from Texas and I’m used to rodeos, not rowing. But this is fabulous. It’s a big step for and commitment from The American Legion.”
Chunyo appreciates the Legion’s support.
“Applying for the grant and learning about it have made my husband and I more aware of The American Legion,” said Chunyo, who along with her husband, Geoffrey, became members over the weekend. “These are people I belong with. That was something new for me. This is a good feeling.”
While a recent surgery sidelined Carolyn from rowing, her team gave The American Legion boat a successful debut, winning by less than two seconds. The long-lasting impact of the victory will not just be the team name etched on the trophy.
“The Legion’s support means that as an entity, Freedom Rows will have the ability to bring more people in quicker, we will have more people in the water being seen,” Chunyo said. “As vets, it means we have more people supporting us in what we are doing. It makes a big difference.
That’s what drove Past National Commander James Koutz to establish OCW as his fundraising program during his year in office. Originally established as a $500,00 goal, more than $1.1 million was donated for OCW under Koutz.
“Operation Comfort Warriors is a great program of The American Legion,” he said. “It’s amazing what they do here with all these boats. Operation Comfort Warriors is proud to be a part of it. It’s great talking with these guys and gals who are supportive of The American Legion, especially Operation Comfort Warriors. They are talking about starting an American Legion rowing post. That would be great and help make OCW even better.”
Throughout its history, OCW has provided a variety of items to help wounded warriors in their recovery. Items have ranged from loose-fitting sweatsuits for burn victims to electronic devices to assist those with tinnitus to fitness equipment for others rehabbing injuries.
A full 100 percent of donations goes to cover items that OCW provides to veterans and servicemembers to help their recoveries. To learn more or to make a donation, please visit this link.
“The reason we get to do things like this boat sponsorship is because of the donations that come in from across the country,” Koutz said.
Dillard noted that OCW grant recipients have included veterans who are dealing post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic injuries in addition to physical injuries.
“There’s no better way to donate money than to donate to individuals who have raised their hands and pledged to give everything, including their lives, in defense of our country,” he said. “There’s no better way to give back to a true American, a true hero, especially those who have had a difficult time going through things.”
American Legion Department of Ohio Commander Jean Wilson made her first trip to the regatta.
“It’s a great honor and privilege to be here,“ said, Wilson, a member of Post 199 in Harrison. “It’s a wonderful way for us to get our name out there and for people to understand what our mission is. We’re putting veterans first and providing what they need and what they want to have. It’s a great opportunity for us to pay back our most precious jewel in the universe, our veterans.”
The department had a booth in a high visibility area where members interacted throughout the day with veterans and non-veterans. Among them was a father of a former American Legion Buckeye Boys State participant who stopped by to share his son’s experience, Wilson noted.
“People have been very impressed that The American Legion is here and that we sponsored a boat,” she said. “And they are also impressed with the range of things that The American Legion does, for our veterans and for our children and youth.”