Shinseki Cheers on Disabled Vets at Winter Sports Clinic
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 29, 2010 Walking among skiers preparing to hit the slopes here during the first day of the National Disabled American Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki noticed a long row of lonely wheelchairs just beyond the staging area.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki calls an abandoned row of wheelchairs at the National Disabled Americans Winter Sports Clinic a testament to the clinic’s success. DoD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“Look!” he told photographers capturing the event. “There’s your picture – all those abandoned wheelchairs. That’s what shows what’s taking place here is all about.”
Their owners were all out enjoying a crystal-clear Colorado morning on Snowmass Mountain, the secretary noted, with any thoughts of disability abandoned along with their wheelchairs.
Anticipation filled the air as they assembled at the base of the mountain, scores of volunteer ski instructors adjusting their adaptive skis and offering tips, and in some cases, reassurance.
“When I walk around the first-timers, I can tell they are as anxious as all get-out,” Shinseki told American Forces Press Service. “They don’t say they are, but it is in their voices.
“And I have stood in a lot of assembly areas where people are getting ready to go on an operation,” he continued, recalling his 38-year Army career that culminated with service as Army chief of staff.
“I know what an anxious voice sounds like,” the secretary said, “so I tell them, ‘Don’t think about it. Do it. At no other time in your life are you going to fall … and have everybody on the slope running over to help pick you up. This week is about making you feel good about yourself, so do it all.’”
Watching it unfold slopeside this morning, Shinseki posed for photos with participants and thanked volunteers for their support.
He helped William Fry, among the first wave of skiers to hit the slopes on a monoski, to fasten his ski bib bearing the number 186. A former Air Force technical sergeant who suffers from multiple sclerosis and memory loss, Fry returned this year for his third winter sports clinic.
What keeps bringing him back, he said, is the sheer fun of whizzing down the slopes, wind in his face. “When you’re out here, speed is everything,” he said.
But Fry said he’s also struck by the support participants receive at every level – from the Veterans Affairs secretary himself, to the VA Department staff to the hundreds of volunteers who return to the clinic again and again every year.
“It doesn’t matter if you were officer or enlisted, where you’re from or what service you were in,” he said. “Everybody is out here together, having fun.”
That fun is rehabilitative, Shinseki said, and a vital part of the care VA provides disabled veterans.
As the clinic encourages participants to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t, Shinseki said, it helps set them on a path to live life to its fullest. He called that a critical step in VA’s aggressive effort to prevent a downward spiral that leads too many veterans to depression, suicide and homelessness.
“This is so important,” the secretary said of the clinic, now in its 24th year. “If we don’t do this, I can see that 400 lives are not going to be quite the same.”
Sandy Trombetta, the clinic’s founder and director, called it a positive way to bring veterans – particularly about 150 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, many just learning to live with their disabilities – into the broader network of VA services available to support them.
“The sooner we can get these men and women engaged in quality-of-life, self-actualizing activities, the better,” he said. “It sets the tone for the future so they realize that they can raise a family, volunteer, get a job. They can do anything they want to do.”