Disabled Vets Share 'Miracle on Mountain' With Wolfowitz
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., April 5, 2005 More than 350 disabled veterans gathered here April 4 to experience what's referred to here as "the miracle on the mountain" - that transformational moment when they realize they can do things they once thought impossible.
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz chats with Jerry Thompson, a Vietnam veteran using an adaptive sit-ski for the first time, as volunteer instructor, Tim Rumball, looks on, April 4. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie Thurlby, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz witnessed countless examples of that miracle here at the 19th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a program that helps veterans with disabilities push their limits and discover their capabilities.
The deputy secretary skied Snowmass, chatting with disabled veterans on the slopes, and traveled to a local trap and skeet range to watch veterans who'd lost their shooting arms or eyesight fire at clay pigeons.
And wherever he went, Wolfowitz spoke with participants in the winter sports clinic to thank them for their service and listen to their stories of hope for the future.
"It's the most powerful thing to have individuals tell you that this program gave them their lives back," Wolfowitz told the American Forces Press Service. "It's a real inspiration to see people conquer their fears and see that they can be as good as so-called 'normal' people. This is a truly inspirational group."
He spoke with Danielle Green-Byrd, an Army specialist who lost her left arm during an attack in Iraq 10 months ago and was returning to a firing range for the first time since her injury.
"I never thought I'd be at a range again," she told the deputy secretary, especially after losing her favored arm, which she'd relied on while playing basketball at the University of Notre Dame. "But do you know something? I'm here, and I see that I'm still pretty good!" she said, flashing an ear-to-ear smile.
But Green-Byrd told Wolfowitz the winter sports clinic offered her more than just a burst of self-confidence. "It's really important to see all the veterans from different generations coming together as one and move forward," she said. "This is all part of the healing process."
Earlier in the day, Wolfowitz paused on the slopes to say hello to Jerry Thompson, a Vietnam veteran using an adaptive sit-ski for the first time since losing a leg to cancer.
"It feels really good," the former Army sergeant told Wolfowitz of his ski experience, as his volunteer instructor, Tim Rumball, looked on. "This is absolutely wonderful!"
Wherever the deputy secretary traveled here, he found examples of veterans' courage and determination to move beyond their disabilities.
Among them was Mike Griffin, an 82nd Airborne Division sergeant who lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan two years ago. After schussing down the slopes today, Griffin wowed onlookers as he scampered up a rock-climbing wall, only to slide back to the ground and do it all over again.
Attending the clinic reaffirms what Griffin said he had already come to recognize: "Being disabled doesn't mean the end of your life. There's too much fun to have left," he said, hurriedly maneuvering his wheelchair to the next winter sports clinic event.
Equally inspiring was former Navy Chief Petty Officer James Miner, a veteran of Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom who suffered a traumatic brain injury and lost his vision following a June 2003 accident in Iraq.
Miner said his first run down the slopes, under the guidance of instructor Roger Harvey, was "nothing but adrenaline." By the second run, Harvey said Miner already was overcoming his fear.
"There was a long time that I never could have imagined being able to do something like this," Miner said. "It gives you a real sense of accomplishment and independence."
"I'm so proud of him," Phon Miner said as she watched her husband attack the mountain. "After seeing him have to relearn everything, from how to talk to how to walk, it's so good to see him doing something like this. He's so happy."
Another example was Ed Salau, a former North Carolina National Guardsmen who lost his left leg near Tikrit, Iraq, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Bradley fighting vehicle last November.
Salau attended the winter sports clinic with his wife and Andy Butterworth, a fellow National Guard sergeant who lost his right leg in the same attack. He called it an important step toward beating what he calls "the mental game" of dealing with a new disability.
During a previous ski trip to New Hampshire with his wife, Terri, and two children, the former first lieutenant said, he began to recognize his ability to overcome his lost leg. "I realized that if I can do this, I can do anything," he said.
As motivated as Salau is by his successes, his wife said she and their children are equally encouraged. "For the three of us to see him ski is just amazing," she said. "It's so exciting to know that he can do anything he wants to do."
Wolfowitz said he was inspired by the veterans he met and their stories of determination and courage and vowed that the country would not forget their sacrifices.
"What our country must never forget is your service and your sacrifices," he told them. "As the president said at Camp Pendleton (Calif.) back in December, America will show the same sense of duty that you have shown.
"We will provide the best possible medical care to any American servicemember wounded in action," he said. "And I would add, we must also provide the best ongoing rehabilitation and lifetime support."