Wounded Troops, Disabled Vets Conquer Mountains at Sports Clinic
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., April 5, 2006 More than 350 severely wounded troops and disabled veterans are conquering emotional as well as physical mountains at the 20th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here.
Participants in the 20th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic prepare their gear at the base of Snowmass Mountain. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The participants, who range in age from 19 to 83 and served in every conflict since World War II, are joining together and showing the world they're not going to let an amputation or a spinal cord injury or visual impairment or other severe disability get in the way of a full, productive life.
As they learn Alpine and Nordic skiing or try their hand at rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, sled hockey, and wheelchair fencing, among other activities, they're reaching not just for the mountaintop, but the stars.
"The only limitation I have is what I put on myself," said Sgt. Tim Gustafson, a Tennessee Army National Guardsman who lost his right leg below the knee to an improvised explosive device in Iraq in February 2005. Fourteen months later, as he prepares to leave Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., next week for his first convalescent leave since being wounded, Gustafson said he has newfound confidence.
"I'm learning a lot and finding new ways to have fun," he said. "And I'm reaffirming what I know I can do."
"This clinic offers proof that we're capable of doing whatever we want to do," agreed Navy veteran Gary Combs, who, although confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, competes in a variety of wheelchair games. "It may take us a little bit longer, but we can do it."
Raymond Lehr, an Air Force veteran with limited use of his legs due to an aircraft loading accident in Vietnam, returned to the Winter Sports Clinic for his third time this year to try tackling Snowmass Mountain on a "mono-ski." "What I love about this is the challenge and the opportunity to learn and do things like this," he said. "It's very uplifting to my spirit and therapeutic, too."
Like Combs, Lehr has a competitive spirit and hopes to one day compete in the Paralympics.
For some participants, the Winter Sports Clinic - which is co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, with donations from corporate sponsors and private donors -- isn't about competing or winning, but rather, proving to themselves and others what they can do.
Among them is 38-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Todd Fringer, a Wisconsin Army National Guardsman who was run over by a drunk driver and can now walk only with assistance. Fringer called returning to the slopes for the first time since his injury the chance to once again prove others wrong. "They said I'd never walk, that I'd be a vegetable and be on a ventilator for the rest of my life, and that really made me mad," he said. "So I was walking within three months, and I'm not on a ventilator. And now I'm going to prove that I can still ski. I needed another goal."
Navy veteran Monica Pearl, here for her fifth Winter Sports Clinic, said the event helps her put her own visual impairment and difficulty walking into perspective. "There are so many people here with so many different problems that it makes mine seem like no big deal," she said as she prepared to hit the slopes. "This is a great experience. You get it into your blood, and you really want to do the best you can do."
For Marine Corps veteran Pablo Guerrero, who experienced a severe head injury in 1996, the Winter Sports Clinic is as much about camaraderie as sport. "I never skied before I was injured, and this gives me an opportunity to really challenge myself," he said. "But the best part about it is getting to meet different people and making new friends. That's what I really enjoy here."
Latseen Benson, a 101st Airborne Division soldier being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after losing both legs to an IED in Kirkuk, Iraq, in November, said the clinic offers another way to live the life he's chosen to lead since being wounded. "I figured that I basically have two choices. Either I'm going to sit in my room and sulk, or I'm going to get out there and live," Benson said. "And for me, that was no choice. Five weeks was long enough to spend staring at four walls. Now I want to get out there."
This week, he's doing that by blasting down Snowmass Mountain on skis. "It kind of feels like I'm flying," he said. "You become one with nature, but at a much faster rate. It's fabulous."
Army Col. Bill Howard, chief of occupational therapy at Walter Reed, called the Winter Sports Clinic the ultimate application of what he and his staff work to instill in wounded troops at the hospital. "That's the laboratory, but this is real life," he said. "When they are finished with this experience, they can go back knowing that they can do things they may initially have felt they never could have done."
By proving themselves to themselves, the participants -- particularly the 30 still undergoing treatment at Walter Reed and at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio -- will return home recognizing new possibilities, Howard said.
"After this experience, we'll see increased self-confidence and an increased willingness to go out in the community and access the community," he said. "And that's the big gratification of this experience, as an occupational therapist and a soldier," he said. "I want them to return to themselves, if you will, and be able to achieve the goals that they want to achieve."