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Rockaway festival honors wounded warriors

As Paul Yarbrough climbed back on the dock from the sailboat, his grin could be seen from the shore. The 40-year-old resident of Nashville, Tenn., had managed to squeeze every activity into the four-day excursion to the Rockaways — kayaking, fishing, water-skiing, scuba and sailing.

Yarbrough had not even considered some of the sports after losing his arm and getting a prosthesis, but through the event — the Wounded Warriors' NY Adaptive Water Sports Festival — he had the chance to see what he could still accomplish.

"It's been a great weekend," a beaming Yarbrough said. "It shows people that we can still go out there and do stuff."

Now in its fourth year in the Rockaways, the NY Adaptive Water Sports Festival, run by the Wounded Warriors Project with help from Disabled Sports USA, Rockaways nonprofit Greybeards and the Rockaway Point Yacht Club in Breezy Point, caters to soldiers with severe injuries and amputations sustained during the wars on terror and in Iraq.

Organizers hope that the activities will open participants' minds about the future.

This was the first year that Staten Island native Ryan Miller participated in the event after he was paralyzed in one leg and torn up by shrapnel from an improvised explosive device blast in Baghdad in October.

"I came to this event not knowing what was going to happen... I was just amazed," Miller said of the experience, which had begun with a parade last Thursday from the Rescue 5 Fire Station in Staten Island through Brooklyn and Breezy Point and ending in Belle Harbor.

"I had a lump in my throat," Miller said of the turnout. "It shows these guys how even in New York City there are really tight-knit, patriotic communities."

Along Rockaway Beach Boulevard, residents and visitors lined the streets with handmade welcome signs, waving flags.

Belle Harbor resident Sarah Arikian, originally from England, unfurled a six-foot-high Union Jack with her 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, in honor of the eight warriors from the United Kingdom.

"This is the best showing we've ever had on 147th Street," Arikian said of the dozen people situated at her corner, when the warriors' parade rolled through.

This year the Arikians housed two Brits, while about 30 other Rockaway residents also welcomed soldiers and their families into their homes for the four-day festival.

"It's a way to give back," said Rockaway resident John McGinty, "because without them we might not even be here."

Bayside residents Jim and Maryellen Barnes also figured out their own way to help out on Sunday.

Jim Barnes ferried warriors and volunteers back and forth to activities on the couple's boat, Showtime, and Maryellen Barnes called up her knowledge as an adaptive ski instructor to assist in the water.

Maryellen Barnes recalled the first year that nine warriors made the trip to Wyndham Mountain in upstate New York for ski instruction, and the idea for the Rockaway event developed.

"The third time he [one warrior] fell, he said, 'I bet this would be easier on the water,' " she said.

In the following years, activities like scuba was added, held in a 4-foot pool sitting on the sand and run by "Big Wave" Dave Reidenbach of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, a trade group.

"A lot of the guys coming back have disabilities, and we wanted to show them that even with a disability you can dive. So we maybe adjust the way they wear the equipment and come up with special equipment for them," Reidenbach said.

For Miller, 25, the experience allowed him to try kayaking and sailing, both of which he had never done before.

"It has definitely been a weekend that these guys are going to remember for the rest of their lives," Miller said, while enjoying a much-earned roast beef sandwich on the shore. "These are lifetime activities."

Miller added that he would like to return next year but as a volunteer rather than a participant to help counsel soldiers who have been recently injured.

Reach Photo Editor Christina Santucci by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 189.

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