Reservist charts course for adrenaline-fueled retirement

In fact, he's had his retirement all mapped out since shortly after joining the Army 16 years ago.

It's the kind of dream job he knows he'll love. He's certain about that because he's already been doing it since, well, shortly after joining the Army about 16 years ago.

The two-time Iraq veteran and airborne jumpmaster says his part-time, off-duty job not only has put some extra cash in his pocket while fueling his passion for the outdoors, but it has also served as an unexpected balm for post-combat stress while channeling his military experience in surprising ways.

Invitation to adventure

For Riley, it all started with an invitation — if he dared — to the Gauley River, better known to most whitewater enthusiasts as the "Beast in the East," a snarling, 25-mile set of rapids carved into some of West Virginia's deepest canyons.

"My uncle was a guide on the Gauley and invited me out to give it a try," Riley says. A cauliflower-eared wrestler still finishing high school in Columbus, Ohio, at the time, Riley was never one to duck from a challenge.

But instead of an opponent to beat, he found a new calling.

"I fell in love with it right from the start," he says. "From that very first time, I said, 'This is it, I'm going to be a river guide.' "

That baptism of water came just as he was joining the Army Reserve, but as soon as he was done with his initial training, he packed up his truck and moved out to West Virginia to make good on his promise to himself.

"I lived in my tent all through that summer, eating grilled cheese and tomato soup, and spent every day I could on the river."

After 9/11, he was mobilized for a year of active duty in North Carolina, where he served as a psychological operations specialist.

Within a few years, he got his own baptism of fire with a tour in Iraq, followed shortly by another. Along the way, he become a full-timer in the West Virginia National Guard.

His first tour downrange was rough: He was assigned to a gun truck pulling security for his engineer battalion commander and helping clear long desert routes of roadside bombs.

After he returned home, "At first, I couldn't stop looking for IEDs when I was driving down the road," he says. "Getting back on the river was a way for me to heal from the war."

The intensity of working on a raging river, and the teamwork it requires not just of the thrill-seeker civilians who pay to go on trips with him, but also between the other guides who work together to keep everyone safe, all helped him slowly recalibrate.

Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Riley, a full-time soldier in the West Virginia Army National Guard, has already landed his retirement dream job working as a part-time whitewater rafting guide. Jon R. Anderson/Staff
Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Riley, a full-time soldier in the West Virginia Army National Guard, has already landed his retirement dream job working as a part-time whitewater rafting guide. Jon R. Anderson/Staff

Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Riley, now a full-time soldier in the West Virginia Army National Guard, lived in a tent the summer he started working as a whitewater guide.

Photo Credit: Jon R. Anderson/Staff

"If you've been downrange, you can miss that intensity and the teamwork, but this is the place where you can get that back — in a good way," he says.

Leadership lessons

While he's been assigned to various units around West Virginia, sometimes more than four hours away, he has always made it a point to keep coming back on weekends and whatever off-duty time he has to keep honing his guiding skills.

On any particular trip, he'll take a group of eight people — many of whom have never been rafting before — and quickly turn them into a team.

"Many of these rapids have a body count. We try to avoid dwelling on that, because we don't want to scare people, and it's our job to keep them safe, but we do want that adrenaline to kick in," Riley says.

His job is as much about teaching and coaching as it is managing and commanding. In short, it's a lot like leading troops.

"It's actually surprising how much this can feel like being in a combat zone in some ways," he says. "Every guide gives a safety briefing, does pre-trip inspections of people and equipment. We all wear a helmet, and instead of body armor, we have life jackets. Instead of rifles, we carry paddles."

Along the way, most trips involve groups of three or four rafts, with a guide in each boat, bonding like fire teams as they watch over each other through the most dangerous rapids.

There is very careful time management and communication between the guides and other trips to keep the busy river from jamming up.

Even as he's preparing to launch with a new crew, Riley says he finds his airborne training kicking in.

"As a jumpmaster, you check people's parachutes exactly the same way every time. There's a sequence you follow, so you don't miss anything," he says.

"I do basically the same thing with people's life jackets — check right side, left side, buckles, side straps, flip them around, check the pillow.

The "pillow" is rafter speak for the part of the lifejacket that's supposed to hang freely to keep a rafter's head out of the water if knocked unconscious, but often just gets tucked under the jacket by newbie rafters instead.

If you dare

Assigned these days to the Army National Guard's West Virginia recruiting battalion, Riley already has bought a house, a little three-bedroom rambler near the river about an hour from where he works in the state capital of Charleston.

"This is my passion — I absolutely love whitewater and meeting new people," he says enthusiastically. "No matter how stressful life gets, this is how I relax. After I retire from the Army, my plan is just to do this until I can't do it anymore."

Even the most experienced rafting guides don't make much more than $15,000 a season, he says, so he's making double payments on his house to get completely out of debt before he retires. "I'm making the sacrifices now, not buying all the goodies, so I can pay off the house quickly while I can afford it."

It's about managing priorities, he says — and his priority is having fun on the river. "People come here for vacation. Why not make vacation every weekend? That's what this job is for me. If you love rivers and being outdoors, and taking people out to have a great time, it doesn't get any better than this."

It's not for everyone, to be sure, he says, but that doesn't mean others can't find something that works just as well for them.

"You have to find your passion, what you love to do," he says. "Everyone that's full-time military should figure out how to do what they love in their free time. And then, if you can figure out a way to turn that into a job, you've just figured out what you can do when you retire."

Just look around and see what's out there, he suggests.

"Maybe you're stationed out West and you can learn how to be a ski instructor or a climbing guide. Or, if you're stationed near the ocean, you can learn how to be scuba instructor, or deep-sea fishing guide.

"It brings in another income stream, but also pays for you to be able to do something you love, rather than having to spend the money to do it. Or worse, not doing it at all because you think you can't afford it."

His simple advice: Find an outfitter or resort in your area that offers something you're interested in and ask them one simple question: How can I learn how to do this?

"Getting paid to do something you love ... I can't think of a better way to spend your free time. It's probably not going to get you rich, but if nothing else, it pays for your habit. And it's a good habit."

That's his invitation to you.

If you dare.

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