Marine plans river trip to support wounded vets

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, January 25, 2014

WHITEWATER--A month after Nic Doucette arrived in Afghanistan, two Marines in his company stepped on bombs within seconds of one another.

The explosions ripped off both their legs.

Since then, the men have recovered with support from several generous charities, but one in particular, the Semper Fi Fund, helped them when they needed it most.

In appreciation, Doucette wants to raise money for the nonprofit group, which is committed to helping injured and critically ill members of the military and their families.

Doucette plans to raise $5,000 and elevate awareness about wounded vets by paddling through the country's midsection.

“All the money will go to the charity,” he said.

None of it will support his trip.

At the end of May, the UW-Whitewater student will launch his kayak at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi River. Then, with nothing but muscle power, the 27-year-old plans to paddle more than 2,300 miles all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. He estimates the journey will take three months.

“I want to travel in a way that allows me to be in touch with my surroundings,” he said. “Most people don't get to see the world at a slow speed anymore.”

The scenic journey on open water will be in sharp contrast to how Doucette traveled in Afghanistan. During his seven-month tour, he drove an armored vehicle at 3 mph from sunup to sundown to clear routes of improvised explosive devices.

He followed a lead vehicle, containing a specialized machine known as Ground Penetrating Radar. The device is capable of seeing if something is buried beneath the road.

If "sweep teams" found a bomb, they carefully detonated it.

“It was really stressful,” Doucette explained. “But the guy in the lead vehicle had the most stress. If he did not catch the bomb, one of our vehicles could roll over it and set it off. That alone was stressful. But some of the roads we drove on were as narrow as the truck, with deep irrigation ditches on both sides. There was no room for error.”

Doucette never drove over any explosives.

His roommate was not so lucky. While riding in an armored vehicle, a bomb knocked the man unconscious after a huge explosion. The violent impact caused damage to his brain, resulting in a condition known as traumatic brain injury.

After four years of active duty in the Marines from 2008 to 2012, Doucette is a UW-Whitewater junior studying business. He is married and does part-time security work. He and his wife, Heather, are saving money to pay the bills while he is away.

Since deciding to paddle the Mississippi, Doucette has thought of little else.

“It is a huge learning experience,” he said. “I love reading the experiences of people who have already done this.”

He has river maps from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“They show every lock and dam,” Doucette said. “I'll be able to see every island coming up and can plan where I want to stop at the end of the day.”

He'll use satellite imagery on his iPhone to ensure he is on the right path.

Initially, he planned on making the trip alone. Then, another Marine asked to join him and will have his own fundraising effort for wounded vets.

Doucette will paddle in a 55-pound hybrid kayak, which has more room for storage than a normal kayak. He plans to camp every night and is taking a tent, sleeping bag and a case of military rations.

“We'll have supply points down the river every two to three days,” he said. “I want to stop at a few towns, but the main goal is to stay on the river.”

He has connected with an online community of people, who support paddlers making the long journey.

“I have not met any of them,” Doucette said, “but they already have offered places to stay or camp. Everyone is incredibly generous.”

For now, Doucette's kayak is in storage.

“I'm just waiting for the snow to melt,” he said. “Planning the trip has been all consuming, but it's very exciting.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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