Disabled vets discover 'miracle on mountain'

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
Sheila James threw her arms up in joy, flashing a smile that stretched from ear to ear as she celebrated a personal victory during the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here March 29.

A motor vehicle rollover in 2009 turned the former senior airman's life upside-down, landing her in a wheelchair and leaving her unable to do some of the simplest things she once took for granted.

Encouraged by the staff at the Audie Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Antonio, where she receives care, James decided to give this year's winter sports clinic a whirl.

The clinic, sponsored by the Veterans Affairs Department and Disabled American Veterans, introduces disabled veterans to a full range of winter sports activities to help them put their fears behind them and press their limits to accomplish what many thought they never could.

James' decision wasn't an easy one. The last time she attempted skiing, before her accident, she had turned tail and run before ever hitting the chairlift. On the afternoon of March 29, James resisted leaving her wheelchair for a high-tech-looking adaptive ski bucket. Her instructors, Andrea Hanson and Richelle Dube, persuaded her into the ski bucket, and kept her laughing as they loaded her onto the chairlift.

Then they led James on the trip of her lifetime, swooshing down Snowmass Mountain and leaving a trail of hoots, hollers and unabated glee in their wake.

"I feel like I am floating," she said after conquering the mountain. "Right now I feel like a big balloon. This is so awesome. I can't believe that I actually did it."

James experienced what Sandy Trombetta, the founder of the winter sports clinic, calls the "miracle on the mountainside."

It's that moment when a disabled veteran suddenly stops focusing on what he or she can't do and realizes a whole new world of possibilities. And it's a regular occurrence at the winter sports clinic.

"The miracle is something that happens within individuals," Trombetta said. "It manifests itself not just here, but also after the veterans return home. What they learn here truly changes their lives, and it lasts forever."

For Elden Miller, a former Army sergeant blinded during a truck explosion at Fort Carson, Colo., the miracle comes while blazing independently down the wide-open spaces of Snowmass Mountain.

"At home, I stare at the wall and can't even drive," Miller said. "But here, I'm totally free. It's an unbelievable experience."

For Stephen Bruggeman, a Coast Guard veteran whose leg was amputated after he was shot during a training accident, it's learning to "think outside the box" and find new ways to tackle the challenges he confronts.

"I can do the same things I used to do," he said. "I just have to do it in a different way. Being here, you see that the possibilities for us are endless as long as we have an open and positive attitude and don't dwell on the disability."

For P.J. Pennington, a former Marine Corps sergeant rendered an incomplete paraplegic after being hit by an errant gunshot last year, the miracle means rising above self-imposed limitations.

"This helps me realize there's so much I can still do," Pennington said as he unstrapped his helmet after a run down the mountain. "I can't walk, but there's still so much I can do. Walking is just 10 percent, but I've still got 90 percent. It's really a mental thing, and recognizing that is what makes all the difference."

For Army veteran Mark Thornton, paralyzed while refueling a truck at Fort Knox, Ky., it's being released from his disability.

"When you're skiing, you don't feel disabled," he said. "You forget about your disability. It totally frees you because you are doing something you love, out of your chair."

As they discovered the miracle on the mountain, the veterans said they had a great time doing it.

"You get a natural high of 'Oh, wow! I just did that,'" said former Air Force Staff Sgt. Claudia Perry, who returned this year for her second winter sports clinic.

"There's so much to do here, what could you not love about this?" agreed Navy veteran Matthew Robinson.

"It's the skiing that brings me back, but it's also the people here -- the camaraderie of the other vets and the volunteers," said former Army Warrant Officer 1 Anthony Radetic.

"I'm loving it," agreed former Army Spc. Alejandro Calvo as volunteer instructors Steve Wanovich and Bryan Wood helped him navigate the deep powder at the top of the mountain.

Jake Hipps, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps lance corporal, returned this year for his eighth winter sports clinic.

"What keeps me coming back is the miracle of the mountain," said Hipps, paralyzed by a gunshot wound.

"It's so rewarding to come here and be able to experience that, but (also) to help share it with the younger veterans," he said. "It's the chance to give back what older veterans freely gave us, and to see them realize that if they can do this, they can do anything."