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Newly Wounded Warriors Experience ‘Miracles on the Mountainside’

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., April 2, 2008 – Less than six months ago, Army Pfc. Michael Dinkel had his leg destroyed by a roadside bomb while he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Fort Riley, Kan.-based 70th Engineer Battalion. Today, still a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Dinkel is shimmying down the slopes of Snowmass Mountain, refusing to let a disability stand in the way of a good time -- or a full, productive life.

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Less than six months after losing a leg to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, Army Pfc. Michael Dinkel is on the slopes and exploring new possibilities at the 22nd National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass Village, Colo. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles

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“I’m having a blast!” exclaimed 27-year-old Dinkel as he took a break after another run down the mountainside. “This is something I dreamed about!”

Dinkel is among several active-duty troops who have joined nearly 400 disabled veterans here for the 22nd National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. Together, they’re experiencing what event organizers describe as “Miracles on the Mountainside” as they try their hands at Alpine and Nordic skiing, rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, sled hockey, curling, fencing and a host of other activities.

In doing so, they’re demonstrating that an amputation, spinal cord injury, visual impairment or other severe disability doesn’t have to stop them in their tracks, explained Sandy Trombetta, who came up with the concept of the winter sports clinic and serves as its national director.

Dinkel never took much convincing that an amputation didn’t have to keep him from his longtime love of skiing. “Three months after I got blown up, I went skiing,” said Dinkel, recalling a trip to Windham Mountain, N.Y., organized through Walter Reed. His next ski trip was to Liberty Mountain ski resort in Pennsylvania, where he continued to fine-tune his technique with adaptive skis.

Here at Snowmass Mountain, Dinkel is a world away from the surgeries still ahead of him at Walter Reed over the next six to seven months before he’s able to return to his native Cincinnati, Ohio.

But in reality, the six-day winter sports clinic is a big part of Dinkel’s and other disabled veterans’ rehabilitation, said Lisette Mondello, assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs.

“This is a rehabilitative event. It’s not about a week of camaraderie and ski lessons,” she said. “It’s about taking someone who’s had a catastrophic injury and saying, ‘Now is the time to move on. Your life isn’t over. It’s time to start again.’”

Edward Hartman, Disabled American Veterans’ national director for voluntary services, agreed that the clinic is a valuable first step toward disabled veterans’ moving forward with their lives. “This is just an introduction to what they can do and what the possibilities are for them,” he said. “This event helps make them realize that their life doesn’t end with their disability.”

Vance Pease, a recreational therapist at the VA center in Seattle who specializes in spinal cord injuries, said he’s witnessed firsthand the benefits the clinic has brought to the disabled veterans he works with. “This can open so many doors and show the veterans that there are so many opportunities out there for them,” he said. “It’s showing to these veterans that life goes on. The challenge, the thrill, the adventure, the risk -- all of it is still there for them if they want it.”

Not everyone arrives at the winter sports clinic quite as mentally prepared as Dinkel for the challenges, thrills, adventure and risk they’ll face here. Harry Williamson, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran suffering from multiple sclerosis, admitted he had some trepidation about his first time down the slope in an adaptive sit-ski.

“I’m nervous,” said the Long Beach, Calif., native. “But I’m going to give it a try. I’m going to see if I can do it, to see if I can master it. And if I do, that’s another challenge I tried and I conquered.”

Conquering challenges on the mountainside is a metaphor for conquering life challenges with a disability, clinic organizers explained. For about one-third of the veterans here for the first time, the clinic offers an opportunity to push themselves in ways many never thought imaginable.

Marine Cpl. Steve Schulz was serving his second tour in Iraq in April 2005 when an improvised explosive device in Fallujah left him blind in his right eye and suffering a traumatic brain injury.

Three years and 17 surgeries later, 23-year-old Schulz said he’s attending his first winter sports clinic to recapture some of the thrill the roadside bomb stripped from his life. “I like going fast,” said Schulz, lamenting that his brain injury has left him unable to drive.

So as volunteers at the winter sports clinic strapped him into a sit-ski for his first whirl down Snowmass Mountain, Schulz was looking forward to feeling the wind in his face and the blur of spectators’ faces as they cheered him down the mountain.

Darol Kubacz, a 33-year-old Army veteran rendered a paraplegic 15 years ago during a training accident at Fort Knox, Ky., said he remembers being in Schultz’ shoes when he attended his first clinic a year after his injury.

Kubacz skied for the first time here and fell so in love with the sport that he moved to Vail, Colo., and ultimately became an adaptive ski instructor. “It changed my life,” he said.

But Kubacz said the clinic gave him something far more powerful than just a new activity to pursue -- and it’s kept him coming back year after year, 13 times. “There’s so much that goes on here, on so many levels,” he said. “It’s about brotherhood. It’s about great people. It’s about great physical and emotional experiences.

“But most of all, it’s about positive mental attitude,” he said. “That’s what they’re teaching people here. Because, when it comes down to it, the only way we are going to succeed and have fun in life is to have a positive mental attitude.”

Kubacz said he gains much from sharing with fellow veterans at the clinic. As they meet at sporting activities, during meals, or at social events throughout the week, they swap stories about everything from the latest adaptive equipment to advice for navigating the VA benefits system, he said. “We educate each other on so many things on so many levels,” he said.

Just as disabled Vietnam veterans guided him when he was first injured, Kubacz said, he hopes to help guide younger veterans with new disabilities suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’m here for the new guys,” he said. “I’m here to listen to them, to support them and to share motivation with them.”

Hope Cooper, an Air Force veteran who was medically retired in 1989, said she, too, hopes to share the life-changing impact the clinic had on her own life with newly wounded veterans.

Cooper said she attended her first clinic in 1991 as a withdrawn and sometimes suicidal woman struggling to come to terms with the disease that left her wheelchair-bound. But she left a new woman, with a new outlook on life that she’s embraced for the past 17 years.

“Coming to this clinic made me realize that no matter what I may have lost, I didn’t lose me,” she said. “The core of me is still there.”

Cooper said she’s sharing that discovery with the newly wounded veterans attending this year’s clinic. “I go around to them and let them know we’re here for them,” she said. “We’ve been through it, and what we tell these young folks is that it’s not over. It’s just a new program for them, and a way for them to triumph over adversity.”

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Related Sites:
Photo Essay: National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageHarry Williamson, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran with multiple sclerosis, admitted to being nervous about his first spin down the mountain on a sit-ski, but added that he views it as another challenge to try and conquer. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Cpl. Steve Schulz, who was wounded in Fallujah, Iraq, by a roadside bomb that left him blind in his right eye and with a traumatic brain injury, said he looked forward to recapturing some of the thrill his disability stripped from his life. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSnowmass Village, Colo., becomes center stage for “Miracles on the Mountainside” as disabled veterans participate in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, cosponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans. Department of Veterans Affairs photo  
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