Miracles on a mountainside: what began as one man’s therapy technique for a disabled veteran has grown into a clinic bringing together more than 350 severely disabled veterans…

Lisa Gregory

SOME were injured in accidents, others in combat operations, but all of the veterans visiting Snowmass Village, Colo., were there for one purpose–to challenge themselves and cheer for each other during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

What began as one man’s therapy technique for a disabled veteran has grown into a clinic bringing together more than 350 severely disabled veterans for a twist on rehabilitation.

The clinic, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, focuses on using winter sports to help veterans gain confidence and courage by doing what they think is impossible. This year, Soldiers injured in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were given the opportunity to participate, thanks to donations made by the people of Aspen and Snowmass Village, Colo.

“I’ve been an instructor with the clinic for 13 years,” said Neil Cames, with the Snowmass Resort Association. “I was talking with Sandy Trombetta, who began this clinic, and we agreed to find a way to involve the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. I know a lot of them couldn’t afford a trip like this, so we relied on the generosity of the people of Aspen and Snowmass and were able to raise $40,000 to pay for the veterans’ expenses.”

Veterans attending the clinic learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and have the opportunity to participate in such other events as rock climbing, horseback riding, sled hockey, shooting or scuba diving. Everyone who attends has to attempt to ski.

“This program is just what OIF and OEF veterans need to be involved with,” said Alan Bowers, national commander of the Disabled American Veterans. “Today’s service members are typically very healthy right up to the point where they lose a limb or their eyesight, and then they have to learn to live with the disability. It’s very easy to get down on yourself, but this program and the people who volunteer here don’t let that happen.”

Bowers added that just relearning to do simple tasks with a prosthesis can be difficult. But for Soldiers to make it through their recovery and then ski from the top of a mountain is truly a miracle.

“When I first came here 10 years ago I was nervous and apprehensive, but by the end of the first day I made it down that hill and it made a huge difference for me,” said Bowers. “We want these young veterans to know that these programs are available to them, and we want to give them the opportunity to participate.”

Since most veterans know about the program through the VA, it was important for the staff of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to know the program was available for the returning OIF and OEF veterans as well.

“We visited Walter Reed to explain the program to the doctors so they can decide who would be physically capable of attending,” Bowers said.

Even after getting their personal doctors’ approval to attend the clinic, participants are cleared a second time during the registration process to ensure their medical status hasn’t changed.

For Erick Castro, who was recently medically retired from the Army after losing his leg in Iraq, the events weren’t as easy as they looked from the sidelines.

“The sled hockey is really pretty tough. It’s a workout,” said Castro. “But it’s great to have something like this for disabled veterans. It’s a chance to meet others going through the same things you are and know they’re there to help. Being able to ski and play sled hockey, and see others do it, too, is a real morale booster for me.”

Each day of the clinic brought about visible changes in the participants’ spirits. “It’s all about pride,” said PFC Phil Bauer, currently stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., awaiting the outcome of his medical board proceedings.

For many, that pride and courage was rewarded during the clinic’s closing ceremonies. After having displayed tremendous courage throughout the entire week, Castro was honored with the DAV Freedom Award for Outstanding Courage and Achievement. The award recognizes the veteran who makes the greatest strides in his or her rehabilitation.

“These veterans had such a great time. I hope they go back and tell others about what they were able to do here,” said Cames. “And we’re going to keep collecting donations to make sure other OIF and OEF veterans can come back next year.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Soldiers Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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