April 19, 2017

Changing Lives, Making Miracles on a Mountainside

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Photograph of clinic participants by Jeff Gallemore, courtesy of the VA.

In its 31st year, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic continues to change lives and create even more miracles on the mountainside.

From March 26 through March 31, more than 400 veterans with a range of disabilities, and from 22 to 82 years old, traveled to Snowmass Village, Colorado, to ski and participate in other activities such as hockey, curling, scuba, rock climbing, kayaking, bowling, fly fishing . Secret Service personnel taught adaptive self-defense. Among the attendees were 120 first-timers, more than 60 female veterans, and 45 veterans with amputations—including one veteran with quadruple amputations.

“It saved me,” Dave Riley said of the clinic. “It really saved me.”

Riley enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1984 and became a rescue swimmer, deploying from helicopters. He was medically retired from the military in 1998 after a bacterial infection caused the loss of all four of his limbs and several internal organs. “That was a hard time, a lot of pain. I looked at a life being flat on my back with other people taking care of me and was not up for doing that,” he said.

Photograph of Riley courtesy of the VA.

Although he adapted to prostheses, obtained degrees in computer science, and started his own business, there was still something missing for Riley. That changed when physicians at his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) service organization got him to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

“When they sent me to the Winter Sports [Clinic], coming down from the top of the mountain, that’s what saved me,” said Riley. “I remember looking up that mountain for the first time and found myself thinking, ‘A guy with no arms and no legs has no business being on skis.’

“This [event] gave me purpose, to be involved with something that’s bigger than myself.”

Riley was this year’s DAV National Commander and a mentor to other participants. The adaptive sports offered at the clinic help veterans with disabilities regain confidence and gives them skills to realize they can continue to be active in their daily lives. They have peer interaction by meeting other veterans with similar life experiences and physical challenges. The clinic is open to military veterans with disabilities, including amputations, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and visual impairments.

“This isn’t a sports event, it’s a rehabilitation clinic,” said Scott Blackburn, the VA’s interim deputy secretary. “It’s about treating the entire veteran, not just their wounds.”

Editor’s note: This story was adapted from materials provided by Elaine Buehler, deputy director, Office of Public Affairs – Continental District, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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