USA — Camaraderie, Challenge Inspire Wounded Warriors

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)

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