Reaching New Heights
The VA summer sports clinic gives disabled veterans a can do spirit.
“Oh, MAN – I gotta GET me one of these,” exclaims retired Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Major.
Major, who lost both legs from an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq in 2006, was on the track at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where he had left his wheelchair off to the side to try out a racing chair. It was there, on that hot September morning, that Major had his life-changing epiphany.
“I can do this,” Major realized.
He had been a bit apprehensive at first as he transferred to the racing chair and received instructions on its operation. His movement was initially hesitant and unstructured as he started his run down the track. When he came back, “It was like I was flying!” Turns out Major is quite a natural.
Improving Body & Mind
Major was one of more than 100 recently disabled veterans from across the country who came to the San Diego area Sept. 16–21 to participate in the 5th National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The clinic is designed to provide early intervention for veterans battling back from injury by not only strengthening their bodies but also overcoming and improving their overall being and self-worth through adaptive sports activities.
These veterans, who have a variety of conditions ranging from traumatic brain injury and spinal-cord injury to visual impairments and loss of limb(s), are introduced to adaptive methods for activities including surfing, sailing, cycling, kayaking, and track and field events.
Major ditched his chair again that morning for yet another first-time experience. He was loaded into a two-man shell with an instructor to learn the art of rowing on Otay Lake. It’s the same place where Olympians prepared for the 2012 London Olympics.
At the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, Dawn Mattson (left) kayaks with teammate Kim Specht at the Mission Bay Yacht Club. (VA photo)
“I love it,” said Major. “I’m kicking myself, if I could, kicking myself in the butt, ‘Why didn’t I try this before?’”
Major wasn’t the only veteran experiencing feelings of independence and hope. Army Staff Sgt. Dan Thornhill was another first-time participant at the clinic.
“I had a severe allergic reaction to an explosion,” Thornhill joked to his instructor preparing him to learn to surf.
Thornhill lost both legs and sustained severe burns when a bomb broadsided his Humvee near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2008. He has been active in his rehabilitation process at the San Antonio VA Medical Center.
“I’m going to try everything,” said Thornhill enthusiastically. “This may have changed how my body works, but it’s not going to change me.”
Having Fun Again
Army veteran Dawn Mattson can certainly relate to Thornhill’s sentiment. With a big bright sun hat and an even brighter smile, Mattson glides her kayak onto the sandy beach of Mission Bay.
She can’t feel the sand between her toes, but she can certainly feel the wind in her hair and the sun on her face. Even her eyes seem to be smiling. On this day Mattson is on equal footing with everyone else; she feels normal, alive and most of all accomplished.
“I am having fun again, and I didn’t know if I would ever feel that again,” says Mattson.
In 2008, the Gulf War veteran’s life changed forever when another driver ran a red light and smashed into her car. After learning she would never walk again, she slipped into a deep, dark place that paralyzed her even more. Isolation and despair consumed her.
“I just sat in my chair and watched TV all day,” says Mattson.
It took months and a persistent group of providers at her local VA hospital for Mattson to come around, and the extraordinary courage to realize there is only one person who can help her – herself.
Working in tandem with teammate Kim Specht, the two glide across the water like professionals with fast, perfect, mirrored strokes. For Mattson, it seems effortless and comfortable; a place she never dreamed she’d be four years ago.
She doesn’t need her wheelchair today, only her inner strength and the confidence to know this day is just the beginning of many more days just like it. As Mattson takes off the life vest,there is only gratitude on her face and appreciation in her heart for her new life and the support of her new friends.
“I have purpose. I have things to do and new people to meet,” says Mattson.
The clinic’s activities are designed to challenge participants, taking them out of their comfort zones and showing them they can continue to have full and active lives.
The philosophy is that you cannot just treat the wounds, you have to treat the whole person. It’s a philosophy that seems to be working.
A host of staff and volunteers from VA, the U.S. Olympic Committee and local programs teamed together to bring these veterans a new sense of freedom through sports.
Army veteran John Register, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a former Paralympic athlete who lost his left leg in an accident, was on hand during the week with other Paralympic athletes who had just returned from competition in London to encourage the participants and act as mentors.
“It’s not about competition,” explains Register. “It’s about being active. When they go home from this clinic they will see that they can recreate with their families again.”
At the end of the week, the veterans went their separate ways with a strong sense of pride and enthusiasm, ready to try whatever comes next.
For more information, visit summersportsclinic.va.gov.
VA Supports Paralympics
The 2012 Paralympic Games in London came to a close on Sept. 9 with a spectacular final salute to the 4,200 Paralympians who competed from 164 nations.
A high point of the closing ceremony was a tribute to wounded British servicemen — a fitting salute given the Paralympics history stemming from a small group of British World War II veterans with spinal-cord injuries competing in the International Wheelchair Games, timed to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made a commitment to ensure that proud history lives on with Team USA. In 2005, VA formally partnered with the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to use VA’s rehabilitative sporting events such as September’s National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic to further inspire disabled veteran athletes to reach their fullest potential.
Since the program’s inception, VA has awarded a $7.5 million grant to the USOC to enable partner organizations to implement community-based, physical activity programs for veterans with disabilities. Some veterans training for the Paralympics may now qualify for a monthly subsistence allowance.
Providing resources for disabled veterans to participate in adaptive sports supports their overall wellness. A key component to VA’s “veteran-centric care.”
For more information, visit va.gov/adaptivesports or usparalympics.org.
Reaching New Heights
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