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Disabled Vets Motivate Each Other at Winter Sports Clinic

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 31, 2008 – As disabled veterans test their mettle this week during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, they’re finding motivation not just on the slopes, but also in each other.

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Retired Marine Cpl. Jason Poole, severely wounded during a bomb attack in Iraq near the Syrian border in June 2004, called the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic the “most fun, craziest, most beautiful time ever!” He brought his girlfriend, Angela Eastman, to this year’s clinic, his third. Photo by Donna Miles
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Four hundred disabled veterans, 67 of them wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, said coming together for the six-day clinic is helping them push themselves even harder to achieve things they never thought possible.

As they heed the advice of Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Gordon H. Mansfield, a disabled veteran himself who opened the clinic last night urging them to reach out to each other, the veterans said they’re finding a special brand of camaraderie that’s driving them on.

Among them is retired Marine Cpl. Jason Poole, who was on a patrol near Iraq’s border with Syria in June 2004 when a massive bomb killed three of his fellow Marines and sent him into a coma. Poole awoke two months later deaf in his left ear, blind in his left eye, riddled with shrapnel and suffering a traumatic brain injury.

Poole admits he was “very scared” to come to the winter sports clinic the first time in 2006, but quickly got over his trepidations. “I had a blast!” he said.

Now back for his third clinic, 25-year-old Poole savors every opportunity the clinic has to offer. “I love it here!” he exclaimed. “This is 110 percent the most fun, craziest, most beautiful time ever!”

What makes the clinic so special, he said, is the chance to spend time with other disabled veterans who understand him and what he’s gone through. “It’s really fantastic coming together with all these different military members. What we share is why everyone has so much fun.”

Now-retired Army Pfc. Adam Lewis was serving in Baghdad with 3rd Infantry Division when a land mine claimed both his legs in July 2003. What scared him the most about his circumstances, he said, was the prospect of never being able to do the things he once loved.

Motivated by his daughter, who was born during his deployment, Lewis became an active athlete, earning top honors in the Wheelchair Games in several categories and returning here for his third winter sports clinic.

“I try to compete in everything,” 27-year-old Lewis said. “But this is about more than the competition. It’s about the people you’re around.”

Now considering himself “a seasoned veteran,” Lewis said he tries to help more recently wounded veterans adjust to their new situations. “I try to listen and see where they’re coming from,” he said. “If they ask for advice, I’m happy to give it.”

Lewis said disabled veterans, regardless of when they served or which uniform they wore, share a common bond. “A soldier is a soldier always,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter who you are or what your rank (is). All of us share the same mixed emotions. The wiser the veteran I become, the more I realize that everyone is pretty much the same.”

This time last year, Angel Gomez had just been medically retired from the Marine Corps and had to wear a helmet around the clock to protect his skull following surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.

Gomez was driving a 7-ton truck during a night mission in Ramadi, Iraq, in April 2005 when an improvised explosive device hit his vehicle and sent him into a coma. He awoke two weeks later to find the right side of his body paralyzed, a tube holding his windpipe open and his brain damaged by a traumatic injury.

Even as he struggled to recover, with grueling hours developed to regaining his ability to walk and talk, the Mountain View, Calif., native said he felt so self-conscious about his appearance that he withdrew into himself. He turned down opportunities to go on outings that provided a respite from the hospital, hating the way people stared at his helmet, his cane and the pipe sticking out of this throat after his tracheostomy.

Coming to the winter sports clinic last year, where he learned how to snowboard, proved to be a huge boost in Gomez’ recovery. “I got motivated going out there,” he said. “It was a big step for me.”

This year, Gomez is back again, his helmet now gone, and ready to take mono-skiing so he can ski even faster than last year. But he said he’s equally excited about the chance to spend time with his fellow veterans.

“There’s a big benefit of coming here, because you meet people on the slopes, at the concerts, dancing and at meals,” he said. “You spend time together and talk, and it really means a lot.”

Marine Corps Reservist Jared Smith was mobilized at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in June when a spinal cord injury from running with a combat rucksack left him in a wheelchair with little hope of ever walking again. Less than nine months later, he’s walking with one crutch and planning to try out an adaptive mono-ski here at Snowmass Mountain.

Looking forward to returning to the slopes, 22-year-old Smith said he’s confident he can tackle the mountain and return to the skiing level he’d built since he first picked up skiing 10 years ago. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since this injury, it’s that you can do everything you did before,” he said. “You just have to do it in an adaptive way.”

Now medically retired as a corporal, Smith said he’s also excited about the opportunity to meet and mingle with other disabled veterans. “When I look around here, I can see that we all have something in common. That’s just not something you find in your hometown,” he said. “So just being here and getting to talk with them is pretty amazing.”

Alfred Clarke, an Army Gulf War veteran who was medically retired from the Army due to an eye disease, returned this year for his fourth winter sports clinic to ski and snowmobile and spend time with fellow veterans.

“This place gives me motivation,” said the Tampa, Fla., native. “It’s someplace where I can talk with and hang out with some of the guys. There’s a lot of spirit here.”

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America Supports You: Sports Clinic Opens for Disabled Veterans

Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Army Pfc. Adam Lewis called competition a big opportunity at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. But almost five years after losing both legs in Iraq, Lewis said he tries to help veterans with more recent injuries adapt to their new circumstances. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageJared Smith, a medically retired Marine Corps corporal injured in June at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said he sees the opportunity to meet and mingle with other disabled veterans as a high point of the 22nd National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass Village, Colo. Joining him for the event is his mother, Krystle Smith. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRetired Marine Corps Cpl. Angel Gomez said the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic gives him motivation as he recovers from severe injuries following an improvised explosive device attack in Ramadi, Iraq. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAlfred Clarke, an Army Gulf War veteran who was medically retired from the Army due to an eye disease, returned this year for his fourth winter sports clinic to ski and snowmobile and spend time with fellow veterans. Photo by Donna Miles   
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