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Marines raise money for wounded warriors in water safari

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
June 13, 2011 at 1:13 a.m.

Ben Keating, 49, and James Graham, 49, take off from the checkpoint on the Guadalupe River in Cuero Monday afternoon. Keating and Graham are raising money to benefit Wounded Warriors through their participation in the Texas Water Safari. Supporters have pledged individual amounts per  mile that the team accomplishes.

CUERO - Paddling down the Guadalupe River on day three of the Texas Water Safari, 49-year-old competitors James Graham and Ben Keating pulled their two-man canoe, Sea Hag, to the shore.

"There they are!" Boat 338 Team-captain Art Torres shouted, rushing to greet his friends under the Cuero 236 bridge, the Safari's eighth checkpoint.

The team of men met 30 years ago, serving in the U.S. Marines at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California.

Through the years and long-term stints in the Marines and U.S. Army, they've remained close friends.

"James asked me to do the race with him, but I said no. I know my limits," Torres laughed. "I guess Ben's a little dumber than me."

For 2 1/2 days in 95-degree heat, Graham and Keating have forced themselves through one of the world's most extreme canoe races, sleeping approximately four hours since the start of the race Saturday morning.

"They're determined to finish ... and they're doing it with a broken boat," Torres said, citing damage to the front, rear and center of the boat, incurred at different checkpoints in the race.

"On this boat, I've got two broken gunnels, which is the wood supporting both ends. I've got holes in the front, holes in the back. The river is so low that there's a lot of obstacles," Graham said. "A lot of boats are getting banged up."

Using onboard repair tools and military know-how, the men have been able to temporarily fix the damages on the boat and continue on in the competition.

Team captain Torres said it's been on Graham's bucket list to compete and finish the 260-mile canoe race, twice attempting the challenge in previous years, yet unable to finish.

But this year is different. This year, he has a dedicated paddling partner, and a charge to raise funds for wounded warriors.

"He was already going to compete, so he said he may as well do it for a good cause," Torres said.

As former military and chief environmentalist at Fort Sam Houston, Graham said he frequently visits troops in need, and saw an opportunity to raise support for them.

"There are a lot of needs out there," Graham said. "We're GIs ourselves and we just support them. They need some additional help in different places and we're there to help them."

For every mile the men complete, Graham and Keating are raising 25 to 50 cents from sponsors.

"We've had several people sponsor us already. And we've met other competitors on the river who've said 'We'll match your miles with ours,'" Graham said.

Boat 338's fundraising goal is between $7,000 and $9,000, Graham said.

Graham and Keating returned to their broken boat, pausing at the Cuero checkpoint long enough to empty trash and rehydrate.

"Get your (butt) back in the water," Torres said, smiling at his friends as they began paddling to the ninth checkpoint in Victoria.

With 100 miles remaining in the competition, Graham and Keating expect to complete the race early Wednesday morning.

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