By Ashleigh Bryant
The forewarning for first-timers attending the 26th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic is generally the same: Prepare yourself for an emotional experience.
This is an understatement, to say the very least.
“What I’ve seen here has been truly miraculous,” said National Commander Donald Samuels, a first-timer who tested the slopes himself in a sit-ski. “I looked around me and saw nothing but smiling veterans, smiling families. All of Snowmass Village seemed to be filled with the positive spirit these veterans brought with them.”
For as profound an experience as it is known to be, there are some emotions that never seem to come into play at the clinic. Yes, there are undoubtedly moments of frustration and anger for veterans as they struggle to overcome enormous personal obstacles, but it is uncommon to see that bubble to the surface. There is no pity exchanged between veterans, but rather a spirit of camaraderie and mutual encouragement. The clinic is no place for commiseration, and participants may as well check all self-doubt at the door.
Nearly 400 veterans and service members with traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, visual impairments, neurological conditions and other disabilities made their way to the clinic to test their mettle at sports like skiing, scuba diving, hockey, rock climbing and trapshooting.
Near the center of the village, a veteran climbed from the seat of her wheelchair to the top of the rock wall. As she struggled against weakening biceps in the last few feet, the cries of support and enthusiasm from her fellow veterans carried through the air and echoed off the mountainside until she made her final push. She gave the bell at the top of the wall a loud and victorious ring, sending those veterans below into fits of cheering and applause. These men and women lend each other every fiber of support they can muster to lift each other up.
Even the most desperate stories a veteran may share at the clinic are not enough to overshadow the fact that he or she is there, taking positive steps toward a better life. The clinic is a place where real flesh-and-blood success stories are written before your eyes.
Another veteran shared his experience of having a “30-year love affair” with substance abuse before getting back on the right path to clean up his life. Is that the story we want to hear? Not exactly. But we know the realities facing our veterans. We know that no one comes home from war truly the same, and that service in the nation’s military leaves scars which, no matter how small, place veterans at higher risk for things like homelessness, drug addiction and suicide. We cannnot solve those problems by tucking them away and not talking about them. So yes, in a way, a story about victory against a 30-year potentially life-ending struggle is exactly the kind of success we want to hear about.
It serves as a clear reminder that triumph against physical odds is not always the most challenging hurdle for these veterans, but overcoming those obstacles is a jumping off point for these men and women to rebuild their confidence and, ultimately, their lives.
In addition to the full schedule of sporting activities afforded to veterans, the clinic offers a wide range of group sessions dedicated to healing the emotional trauma associated with injury and illness.
Marine veteran and author of the book Jarhead, Anthony Swofford, hosted a session on how to craft and use creative writing workshops as part of rehabilitative therapy. Swofford explained that this can not only help with a veteran’s cognitive abilities, but also serve as a form of expression to help put the past in the past.
“I like to think about it as a way for vets to slow down and find a place of quiet for themselves,” said Swofford. “One man came up to me after the class and thanked me. It made him realize he could safely articulate what he had been through, and then through the act of writing he was making more sense of it and making more sense of his injuries.”
Like Swofford, there are hundreds of volunteers who gave freely of their time to make the clinic possible. That includes both current and former members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, as well as others dedicated to making every aspect of the clinic run smoothly.
At the end of the day, the veterans themselves tell the clinic’s story so much better than anyone else can.
“I’ve heard them talk about how this clinic brought them back from the edge of depression, how it gave others purpose and drive to exceed their own perceived limitations,” said National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson. “It’s amazing how one event can do so much to convince a person how much they are truly capable of, and I know these men and women will carry that with them throughout the rest of the year.”