Friday, March 28, 2014

Changing lives at a sports clinic for disabled vets

From Paul Wolfowitz in the Wall Street Journal:

At the end of this month, the 28th annual Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic will take place in Snowmass, Colo. The clinic helps veterans suffering from a variety of challenges—from severe combat injuries to multiple sclerosis—rebuild their lives. 

That might sound like a big claim for a one-week winter event, but hundreds of past participants will tell you it's true. Chris Devlin-Young, who broke his back when a Coast Guard C-130 transport plane crashed in Alaska on a rescue operation and later attended the first clinic, went on to become a gold medalist in the 2002 Winter Paralympics.

The Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic was started in 1987 by a small group of Veterans Administration staff in Grand Junction, Colo. They worked on their own time on a budget of $50,000—entirely from private contributions—with some 90 veterans assisted by roughly 50 volunteers. This year there will be some 570 volunteers assisting 400 veterans, including a 91-year-old veteran of the World War II Army Air Force. 

Since 2000, the Department of Veterans Affairs, a co-host of the clinic along with Disabled American Veterans, has provided some direct support. But 85% of the clinic's budget, $800,000 this year, still comes from private donations, not to mention the priceless volunteer support.

This clinic is an example of our country at its best, of that American genius for organizing on a volunteer basis to meet a societal need. It is also a demonstration of the often extraordinary ability possessed by people who are considered disabled—by traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, orthopedic amputations, visual impairments and neurological problems. Their performance frequently exceeds what many of us supposedly "able-bodied" people can do.

The volunteers are a stellar group. They include almost 200 certified ski instructors for the disabled—among them some of the world's best—and several current and former members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, as well as inventors of some of the prosthetic devices that are crucial for this unique sport. 

But it's the participants themselves who are the most amazing. Chris Devlin-Young says that he was mad at the world after becoming a paraplegic. Attending the first clinic only reluctantly, he was urged to try skiing—and became hooked after one run. "It gave me adrenaline and control," he says. "It gave me my life back." 

Another member of that original group is Urban Miyares, who boasts the world record for downhill blind skiing at 63 miles an hour and also skippered the first sailboat to complete the Transpacific Yacht Race with an all-disabled crew. He credits the clinic not only with his remarkable athletic achievements but with helping him become a successful entrepreneur.

Just 12 months after losing both hands to an enemy rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2004, Marine Cpl. Eddie Wright was snowboarding at the clinic and stayed on active duty as a martial arts instructor, the first double amputee to serve on active duty, before retiring as a sergeant. 

When I first visited the clinic in 2004 as a Defense Department official, it sounded like a winter vacation for some men and women who certainly deserved one, but nothing more than that. I soon learned that the week is more like boot camp, and for many it is even more demanding. 

The veterans are pushed to do things they never thought they'd be able to do again, in some cases things they had never done at all. Imagine the thrill of a blind Vietnam veteran making his way down the ski slopes for the first time in his life, helped by the highly skilled instructor behind him. Or a newly injured triple amputee participating in adaptive sled hockey—a form of ice hockey.

Chris Lynch, a veteran of the famed 82nd Airborne Division, suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a training accident 14 years ago. He has attended the clinic regularly since 2003. His mother, Cheryl, says, "No words can actually express how amazing this clinic really is." Cheryl started a traumatic brain injury support group that meets during the clinic. Veterans and their families discuss how they try to cope with the life-changing challenges they encounter.

Early during my first visit in 2004, one veteran approached me and with tears in his sightless eyes said: "I owe my life to this program." A nearly fatal automobile accident had left him, as he put it, "deaf, dumb, blind and quadriplegic. I was almost ready to give up on life." As the weight of that thought sank in, he continued: "This program gave me my life back. Now I have everything except my eyesight."

You can hear that story again and again from so many of the participants. "This clinic changed my life. It gave me back my will to live."