Vets Find ‘Miracle on the Mountain’ at Winter Sports Clinic
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., Apr. 5, 2013 About 400 disabled veterans, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are discovering the power of sports and camaraderie in their recuperation as they experience what’s recognized here as the “Miracle on the Mountain.”
Mark Struss, left, a volunteer adaptive ski instructor for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass Village, Colo., shows Dennis Cataldo an app on his cell phone that registered that Cataldo skiied down Snowmass Mountain at 29 mph, April 4, 2013. Cataldo, a Marine corporal who suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress after falling from a 7-ton truck during a 2003 firefight in Nasiriyah, Iraq, said the camaraderie of the clinic provides a big boost to his recovery. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The veterans are participants in the 27th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a six-day program of activities that wraps up tonight.
The clinic, jointly sponsored by the Veterans Affairs Department and Disabled American Veterans, uses recreation as a rehabilitative tool for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
As they learn adaptive and Nordic skiing and get introduced to other adaptive physical activities and sports, their eyes get opened to a whole new world of opportunity.
Former Army Spc. Tatiana Reyes returned for her second year at the clinic after discovering its transformational powers. Suffering nerve damage, a traumatic brain injury and third-degree burns when the gun truck she was driving hit an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007, Reyes had retreated inwardly to help in dealing with her condition.
She said she initially resisted her VA caregiver’s recommendation that she give the clinic a try, but after experiencing it, has never looked back.
“Everything just changed for me,” she said. “I had fun, and I started to be involved with the world.”
The camaraderie of the clinic has been a big boost for Dennis Cataldo, a Marine corporal who suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress after falling from a 7-ton truck during a 2003 firefight in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
Like Reyes, Cataldo said he withdrew from those around him, finding that crowds triggered his symptoms. Working with the staff at VA’s New Jersey Health Care System, Cataldo said, he’s using breathing and meditation techniques to develop mindfulness and keep his emotions in check.
Those techniques have paid off with his skiing, too, Cataldo said. After a spin down Snowmass Mountain, his adaptive ski instructor, Mark Struss, showed him an app on his cell phone that had Cataldo at 29 mph.
Taking a minute to savor the moment, Cataldo said the welcoming atmosphere he’s found among fellow veterans, staff and volunteers at the clinic have been big steps in his rehabilitation. “The people here are great,” he said. “They just can’t do enough for you.”
Former Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Henry Sawyer was at the top of his game -- literally -- when he suffered a spinal cord injury in February 2010 while playing semipro football for the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Duval Panthers.
A lifelong athlete, Sawyer refused to let a wheelchair get in the way of his passion, and quickly recognized its value in his rehabilitation. He’s a past participant in the Defense Department’s Warrior Games, and a first-timer at this year’s winter sports clinic.
“I try to participate in every event I can, because I want to get my mobility back,” he said. “I want it back 100 percent.”
Sawyer called his first-ever experience on skis this week a triumph, if not necessarily from an athletic standpoint, at least emotionally.
“I loved it!” he said. “Stuff like that really boosts me up!”
He said he recognizes that the same mental attitude that propelled his football career is a key to his rehabilitation.
“You can’t stay down,” he said. “You have to have a joyful spirit.” A big part of that, he added, is the camaraderie of fellow disabled veterans he’s meeting at the clinic.
As he awaited a clinic-sponsored trip to Aspen to ride the gondola for a mountaintop all-terrain vehicle ride, Sawyer sat in deep conversation with former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Lee Baker, a third-year clinic participant.
Baker, in a wheelchair since a 2008 car accident, said he understands the trepidation some first-time attendees experience when they arrive at the clinic. So he makes a special effort to reach out to them, as well as to others just learning to live with their disabilities.
“You always run into someone who hasn’t been in a chair as long as I have, and maybe I can offer them some little tips,” he said. “I’m always looking for an opportunity to offer some help. I’ve found that the best way to help myself is to help other people.”