VA Secretary Opens Disabled Winter Sports Clinic, Thanks Veterans
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., Apr. 2, 2007 Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson opened the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here last night, offering special thanks to wounded warriors of Iraq and Afghanistan and encouraging them to seize the opportunities that await them here.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson and his wife, Suzanne, greet participants in the 21st National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic during a “Taste of Aspen” opening-day event at Snowmass Village, Colo. Veterans Affairs photo by Elaine Buehler
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“There is controversy about this war, but there is no controversy about you,” Nicholson told about 100 veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, who joined more than 300 other disabled veterans for this year’s clinic.
Nicholson thanked the troops who have served to defend the country against terrorism.
“For those on the line tonight over in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for so many of you that are here who have been on that line, I say again, on behalf of this nation of people that is so free: It is free because of you, and we owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude,” he said.
The secretary urged the veterans to take advantage of the opportunities that await them here. During the six-day winter sports clinic, they will learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and get the opportunity to try their hand at rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, sled hockey, wheelchair fencing and other activities.
The goal is to push disabled veterans’ limits and help them discover things they never imagined they could still do, explained Sandy Trombetta, VA’s national director for the clinic. He calls the experience a “ride of discovery” that proves life-changing for many participants.
Nicholson said he recalled overhearing Trombetta convincing disabled veterans at last year’s clinic that it’s OK to fall on the slopes. “He told them he likes it when they fall,” Nicholson said. “And do you know why? He said to them, ‘Because I love it when you guys get up and start all over again!’
“That’s what this clinic is all about,” Nicholson said. “It is about starting over, starting something new and eventually winning--winning by putting the emphasis into ability over disability.”
That winning attitude has a geometric effect, because it motivates other disabled veterans. They, too, “take the plunge and they learn what other things they can still do,” Nicholson said.
Bradley Barton, national commander of the Disabled American Veterans, which cosponsors the clinic with the Department of Veterans Affairs, joined Nicholson in encouraging the country’s newest disabled veterans to look beyond their limitations.
Barton, who was paralyzed from the waist down during combat in Vietnam, told the group he’s had almost 40 years to face his disability and find a way to succeed in life.
“And to be very honest with you, after having gone through the process of adjusting to life with a disability, it is difficult to see your young men and women returning from another war with scars and wounds and the challenges that injuries bring,” he said.
Barton said the winter sports clinic, made possible by generous corporate sponsors and an army of volunteers, gives him hope that the country is moving in the right direction in how it treats its disabled veterans.
“Of course, when you’re up on top of that mountain and you look down, there is going to be a chance that you’re going to wonder if you are moving in the right direction,” Barton quipped. “But never mind that. When you get to the bottom and you look up, my money says you will have a whole new perspective on everything.”
Darrell Lawrence, a former 3rd Infantry Division soldier who served in Iraq and was rendered a paraplegic last June, hopes to recapture that perspective this week during his first winter sports clinic.
An accomplished snowboarder before his injury, Lawrence looks forward to getting the rush he once enjoyed on the slopes when he tries out the adaptive sit-ski. “I hear that you can jump with them,” he said. “I love flying through the air.”
Finding a new sense of independence and freedom is what the winter sports clinic is all about, said Joey Bozik, a former 18th Airborne Division military policeman, who lost his right leg and most of his right arm after being hit with an anti-tank mine in Iraq in October 2004.
Bozik attended last year’s clinic and made such a remarkable breakthrough that he was presented the clinic’s inspiration award during the closing ceremonies.
“This is a life-changing experience,” he said. “You take what you get here with you, and you realize that you’re limited only by your mind.”
Orlando Perez, who was retired from the Army after a tumor spread to his spinal cord and put him in a wheelchair, credits the winter sports clinic with giving him a whole new view of life.
After receiving the novice Alpine skier award at last year’s clinic, Perez said he finally realized just how much he’s still capable of doing. “You don’t have to settle for being disabled, with no hope. There’s hope,” he said.
“And we have to examples for other people so they can see what’s possible and know that great things are going to happen.”