Nicholson, Wolfowitz Open Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., April 3, 2006 Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz opened the 20th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here last night, praising participants for their sacrifices and their focus on their abilities, not their disabilities.
Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz speaks April 2 to disabled veterans at the opening ceremony for the 20th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. Photo by John Sokolowski
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Nicholson saluted this year's 350 participants, including about 50 wounded during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, for their willingness to push beyond their comfort zones to discover the challenges they can overcome. He told them their "indomitable spirit and optimism and can-do attitude ... epitomize America."
"You are showing that there are no barriers to living life to the fullest and being a productive person if you put your mind to it," he said. "By your achievements in the field of sport this week, you will again showcase that spirit of America."
The winter sports clinic is about a lot more than skiing, Nicholson said earlier in the day. "It's about (these veterans) coming together, getting to know each other and bonding and realizing a whole new set of life experiences," he said. "It's opening them up to a whole 'nother life."
The program, jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Disabled American Veterans, is open to U.S. military veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
During a six-day program designed to help them push their limits and discover new abilities. Veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing. They also are introduced to a variety of other activities and sports, such as rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, and sled hockey. This year, for the first time, participants will also be introduced to racing techniques and other Paralympic sports, such as wheelchair fencing.
Between their scheduled sports activities, participants will kick back to the entertainment of country music star Clay Walker and visit with actress Bo Derek, national honorary chairwoman for VA's rehabilitation special events.
Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, told the group he was so impressed by what he witnessed at last year's clinic, which he attended as deputy defense secretary, that he didn't want to miss this year's event. "It was fantastic. ... It just blew my mind," he told the group. "I didn't realize that this is sort of like basic training, taken to a higher level. ... I realized what this program pushes you to do and helps you learn to do, and I heard over and over and over again (that) this is a life-changing experience."
"This is an amazing activity," he said earlier in the day. "You keep seeing what people can do if they are determined to do it. I've gotten so much of an appreciation of what these people face and what they manage to deal with and overcome. It's inspirational. It really is."
Beyond helping disabled veterans push beyond their limitations, the program helps create a forum for veterans to support and inspire each other, Wolfowitz said. "I think it's very important, because the support you give one another and the support that families give one another is part of what makes these miracles happen," he said.
Wolfowitz thanked the veterans for their service and sacrifices. "I can't say enough about how personally grateful I feel, going all the way back in the history of this country, that we live with freedom that has been earned the hard way," he said. "A lot of people have paid for it with their lives and with terrible wounds, and I ... am very grateful for myself and for my children. ... So thank you very much."
The former deputy defense secretary closed by offering thanks to the sponsors and volunteers who make the winter sports clinic possible. Among them are more than 150 certified handicapped ski instructors. Several current and former members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team are serving as instructors.
Among the instructors is Dave Wikman, who's been teaching disabled people to ski since 1996 and returned here for his third National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic. "I'm here to give them the most exhilarating day of their lives," he said.
Wikman said he's always amazed to watch the transformation that takes place when disabled people experience the thrill of skiing. "You see ear-to-ear smiles and a recognition that they can do something a lot of them never thought they could do," he said. "It's a great thing for them, and it's one small thing I can do to give back for all that they've given."
One of this year's first-time skiers is Kenneth Adams, a 3rd Squadron, 17th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, soldier who received serious head injuries and was blinded during an accidental shooting in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in January 2004. Adams wasn't expected to live more than a few hours after the accident and received a battlefield retirement as a private first class. Two years later, he's here with his wife Katie and said he's ready to test himself on the slopes.
"I've never skied and never thought I'd ever ski, especially without eyesight," Adams said. "But I've done a lot of things since I became blind, and I figure that you've got just one life to live. So you have to do everything."
During last night's opening ceremonies, Paul W. Jackson, national commander of Disabled American Veterans urged Adams and other participants in the winter sports clinic to push toward their limits. "If you don't push yourself to your limits every once in awhile, you never know what could have been," he said. "Get out there and give it all that you've got."