08 April 2010

Disabled Vets Discover 'Miracle on Mountainside'

About 400 disabled veterans here for the 24th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic -- including about 150 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- aren't anticipating pulling April Fools pranks tomorrow. They're expecting miracles today.

Photo left: Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class John Felix said he had fixated for far too long on what he couldn't do due to multiple sclerosis. Just days into his first National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, Felix said he'll return home a new man, focused on his capabilities, not his disability. DoD photo by Donna Miles

And halfway through six days jam-packed days of activities designed to push them to new heights and enhance their rehabilitation, those miracles are beginning to unfold.

"I'm already feeling it," said Noah Currier, a medically retired Marine Corps corporal who is among more than 100 first-timers at the clinic.

Currier returned home safely after two combat deployments with the 1st Marine Division's 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. He was among the first to deploy to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and was at the tip of the spear during the U.S. invasion into Iraq in 2003.

But three days after he returned from the second deployment, as he was riding back to Camp Pendleton, Calif., Currier's life took a dramatic turn. The fellow Marine driving from San Diego feel asleep at the wheel, and their vehicle hit a tree and slammed down a 20-foot embankment.

Currier was paralyzed from the chest down.

Seven years later, after whizzing down Snowmass Mountain on adaptive skis at his first winter sports clinic, Currier experienced the kind of adrenaline rush he thought he'd lost forever.

"It was absolutely great! Awesome! I had a blast!" he exclaimed. "It's a feeling of liberation. I wish I'd done it a long time ago."

Currier experienced a phenomenon that's come to be known here as the "Miracle on the Mountainside."

It's ever-present at the winter sports clinic, where veterans of all ages are getting introduced to adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing, rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, wheelchair fencing, sled hockey, snowmobiling and sled hockey, among other activities.

As they push past their comfort zone and try things many thought they'd never be able to again, they discover a new sense of self-confidence and purpose.

"They say, 'Wow, this is something I can do,'" said Darren Cook, a scuba instructor at the clinic for the past 20 years. "And you see them build that confidence, one step at a time."

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class John Felix said he, too, has felt the Miracle on the Mountainside. The former recruiter admits he took an emotional nosedive watching multiple sclerosis weaken his body. But just two days into the clinic, realizing he still can enjoy the love of skiing he picked up while stationed in Germany, Felix declared himself new man.

"Yesterday was a major accomplishment," he said of his successful downhill run, with an adaptive ski instructor at his side. "It was the first victory I've had in the last three years."

The victory continued as Felix climbed a rock wall, drawing wild applause from onlookers below as he rang the bell at its apex. Felix said he'll take the can-do attitude he's gained here when he returns home from the clinic.

"I now have a whole new attitude," he said. "I feel like I can go back to Connecticut, and whatever challenges come my way, I can say, 'Bring it on. I can handle it.'"

Heeding the advice of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, a disabled veteran himself who opened the clinic March 28, Felix said he's finding encouragement and inspiration from the other participants.

"I see people with a whole lot more serious issues than I'm dealing with doing amazing things," he said. "And the way I look at it, if they can do it, I can definitely do it."

Daniel Pelacios, a former Army sergeant and long-time participant at the clinic, said he was excited to return after a five-year hiatus to enjoy the camaraderie at the clinic.

"What's really great is the chance to see the new guys, bond with them and help them out," he said. "Because no matter what service they were in or when they served, I find that I have so much in common with them."

"I'm learning so much here, from everyone," said Joey King, a former Marine corporal who was confined to a wheelchair four years after leaving active duty, after a 2008 car accident. "I'm asking lots of questions."

King's attendance at his first winter sports clinic is a rite of passage in itself. Although he lives independently, he's been largely confined to his Wisconsin community since his injury and had yet to get on a plane or check into a hotel room. "It's a whole learning experience," he said.

That was before his first time on skis – ever. Although sore from keeping his forearms so tense during the downhill run, King said, he had a blast screaming down the mountain. He was looking forward to trying his hand at snowmobiling and other activities at the clinic. "I'll try anything," he said.

The Miracle on the Mountainside extends to family members attending the clinic with their loved ones. Valerie Wallace said she's amazed in the transformation she's watching take place in her son, Army Sgt. John Barnes.

Barnes was wounded during a mortar attack while deployed to southwestern Baghdad with the 101st Infantry Division in 2006. Since then, he's struggled with a severe traumatic brain injury that's complicated by post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Getting Barnes to the clinic was a challenge in itself, his mother admitted, but she said she's already seeing a breakthrough in the making. He spent two and a half hours on a snowboard, arriving at the bottom of the slope dripping in sweat and the kind of ear-to-ear grin that she said has become so rare since he was wounded.

"Just for him to be out here and do all this, you can't wipe the smile off his face," she said. "There really is something special that's happening here."

Hundreds of volunteers who make the winter sports clinic possible say they, too, feel the magic of the winter sports clinic.

"This is a way for us to come and give a little bit back, but in some ways, it's almost self-serving to be here," said Scott Romme, who has returned to the clinic for the past 10 years to teach scuba diving. "It puts life in perspective. And in a lot of ways, I think we get more out of it than the veterans."

As he talked about the winter sports clinic – a vision he came up with more than two decades ago to help disabled veteran recuperate –clinic director Sandy Trombetta tried to describe what happens during the Miracle on the Mountainside.

Many veterans lose a sense of who they are when they become disabled, he said, but he credited the tremendous support they receive here, along with the healing power of the mountains, with helping them re-establish their identify.

"It's a mind, body, soul experience that affects the spirit," Trombetta said. "And what really makes the difference here are those mountains. It's Mother Nature. You can't come here and not be overwhelmed by the grandeur of these mountains. It's overwhelming."

The winter sports clinic, which continues through April 3, is jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans.

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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