SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — Camaraderie and the opportunity to challenge themselves are proving to be some of the best therapy possible for wounded warriors attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Few might have guessed during the early days of last year’s clinic that one of its most reluctant participants would return this year as one of its biggest supporters.
Retired Army Sgt. John Barnes suffered a severe traumatic brain injury during a mortar attack in 2006 while he was deployed to southwestern Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. His injury sent him into a downward spiral as he struggled with TBI, post-traumatic stress and substance abuse.
Attending his first winter sports clinic last year, Barnes was ready to call it quits from the start. His luggage was lost in transit, and the high altitude made him feel miserable.
“My son was convinced that this was going to be a horrible week and said we should just go home,” Barnes’ mother, Valerie Wallace, recalled. “He was irritable, negative and just kept saying he wanted to go home. He said he would never come back here again.”
But snowboarding the first morning of the clinic changed everything. “When he left the snow, he was excited, happy and exhilarated,” Wallace said. “He was excitedly telling everyone who would listen how he was going to get back on the mountain … and ‘tear it up.’ ”
By the week’s end, Barnes was singled out to receive the Disabled American Veterans Freedom Award for Outstanding Courage and Achievement. The award recognizes the first-time participant at the clinic who best exemplifies courage and achievement while taking a giant step forward in rehabilitation. This year, Barnes enthusiastically returned to the clinic, recognizing the changes it helped him make in his life. “This gave me a lot more self-confidence,” he said. “It shows you that you can do things you didn’t think you could because you limit yourself. This helps take away those limits.”
Barnes is among about 100 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan participating in this year’s winter sports clinic. Many, like former Army Spc. Barbara Newstrom, say they’ve grown through their experiences on Snowmass Mountain and are passing those lessons on to first-timers to the clinic, many of whom still are learning to live with their disabilities.
Newstrom was a medic and truck driver deployed to Iraq with the Army Reserve’s Las Vegas-based 257th Transportation Company in October 2003 when an enemy attack left her with a traumatic brain injury. The winter sports clinic, she said, has made a huge difference in her rehabilitation and given her a sense of belonging that’s hard to find elsewhere.
“This is an environment where you don’t feel different,” she said. “If you can’t find a word, you get lost in the hotel or you have anxiety issues, people here understand. You feel acceptance and understanding. It’s what makes this place so special, because it feels like family.”
Newstrom said she strives to welcome first-time participants at the clinic into the fold.
“We try to reach out to the new veteran coming in and teach them the little things we’ve learned along the way,” she said. “We try to pass it on to them so they can benefit from it, too.”
Former Army Sgt. Kevin Pannell, also a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he took so much away from his first clinic last year that he, too, anxiously returned for its silver anniversary celebration.
“The snow is cool, but that’s not really what brought me back,” Pannell said. “It’s the people here. They’re what make this place really something.”
Pannell was deployed to eastern Baghdad with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, in June 2004 when two grenades lobbed during an ambush tore off both his legs -– one below the knee and one just above. As he recovered from his wounds, Pannell took up snowboarding and with it, a whole new outlook on life.
“I’m a happier person now,” he said. “I realized that I hadn’t been getting the most out of what life is until I almost had the rug pulled out from me. Some people think it sounds strange, but I am actually a better, happier person since this happened to me.”
Some participants in the winter sports clinic, like former Army Sgt. Robert Schuler, suffered their injuries after returning from combat. Schuler was back just six months from his deployment with the Hawaii-based 25th Special Troops Battalion when a freak boogie-boarding accident in May 2008 broke his neck and put him into a wheelchair. Less than two years after his injury, Schuler jumped at the chance to attend his first winter sports clinic last year.
“I just had a blast on the mountain,” he said. “But it went beyond that. What’s really neat here is the chance to talk to other veterans. You learn about yourself. And when you see people with less function than you have, it opens your eyes to new possibilities about what you are able to do.”
The winter sports clinic, jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, uses recreation as a rehabilitative tool for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
As veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and get introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, curling, snowmobiling and sled hockey during a five-day program, program officials strive to open their eyes to a new world of opportunity.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)