Veterans get ready to hit the slopes during the 28th Annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Colo. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio
For many veterans, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic is more than an annual event – it's a tradition
Sometimes it’s good to be a journalist. And while I missed my opportunity to be embedded with a front-line unit, I have had many unique opportunities to tell the stories of the American military veteran.
It’s always an honor when asked to cover a veteran’s event. It’s more than an assignment. It’s an opportunity to be among “my own kind” – The servicemen and women of the United States Armed Forces.
The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic (NDVWSC) was right up my alley in terms of mingling with our nation’s finest, and for the hundreds of veterans who attend each year, this has become more than an annual event. It’s become a tradition.
Each year disabled veterans from across the country gather in Snowmass Village, Colo., to get some first-hand experience in winter sports ranging from downhill skiing to sledge hockey to cross-country skiing.
The annual event is more than a weeklong escape to the snow capped mountains of Colorado. For many, it’s a time to rekindle the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, shared by countless veterans across countless campaigns. It’s a time to bridge the generation gap from World War II to the Korean conflict to present day Iraq and Afghanistan and share the special journey that brought them together.
As the sports clinic name suggests, the veterans here share one other common trait: They are all living with a disability or illness. Some are service related injuries, while others occurred during a mishap in daily life. Whatever the cause, the results are the same, as is their resolve to muster through life as best they know how.
Meeting U.S. Army veteran Anthony Bryant was a narration of living history, humor and compassion. Fresh off the ski slope and bundled in a blanket, gloves and hooded coat, the 82 year-old Korean War veteran regaled his years as an infantryman during the Korean conflict, his 35 year career as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service and the 14 years he’s attended the NDVWSC – all without missing a beat.
Veterans receive sledge hockey skills instruction during the 28th Annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Colo. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio
“It was great … it’s always great,” says Bryant of his skiing experience. “I have a wonderful group of volunteers who treat me very well. I’ve enjoyed all 14 years of the sports clinic.”
Skiing is Bryant’s passion, although he enjoys mixing it up with day trips to Aspen, visiting the hot springs and of course meeting new people. “I’ve met people from all over the states, England and Puerto Rico,” says Bryant. “I did great on the mountain today. Each time just gets better. There’s so many beautiful people, and beautiful women … I call them all baby.”
For veterans like Bryant, being able to attend events like the NDVWSC is an important part of rehabilitation and staying active. If not for the work of organizations like Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veteran (DAV) and the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) itself, many veterans would most likely be unaware of the activities that await them post injury.
“Doing accessible sports helps me both physically, and especially mentally,” says Bryant. “I appreciate the time and effort of the coaches and volunteers who continue to push me past my limits.”
Bryant is only one of thousands of veterans who have participated in the winter sports clinic. What started as a recreational outing in the early 1980s has evolved into a 28-year tradition that’s helped countless injured veterans push past their injuries. The first NDVWSC had only 90 veteran participants and 20 staff members. Today, the event has grown to more than 300 injured or disabled veterans, and requires hundreds of volunteers and organizers to oversee the overlapping schedules, transportation to and from various events and logistics, just to name a few.
“This year’s clinic was unique because it occurred in the wake of the 2014 Winter Paralympics, where 18 U.S. military veterans competed and brought home the gold medal in sledge hockey,” says Marine veteran and VA Public Affairs Officer Michael Molina. “Many of those Paralympic athletes received their introduction to winter sports during this very clinic.”
Since 2005, the VA has had a partnership with U.S. Paralympics that establishes the Winter Sports Clinic as a pipeline to provide athletes to American Paralympic teams engaged in national and international competition.
That Paralympic pipeline is especially helpful to newcomers to the sports clinic who hope to pursue careers in accessible sports. Newcomers like U.S. Navy veteran Laurie Wood was an instant hit among her veteran brethren for her gritty courage and uncompromising approach to new situations, she was often the first in line, charging the way for others to follow.
“Being able to play hockey, go snowmobiling and take part in other activities was an incredible experience that I would have never had the opportunity to participate in if not for the VA and DAV,” says Wood. “I’ve never gone scuba diving before, and to do it now, after my injury was incredible.”
Wood grew up playing pond hockey with her brothers in New York, so it was a natural setting for her once she hit the ice during the sports clinic. In fact, during a scrimmage she gave U.S. Marine veteran Joey Avellone a run for his money as the two battled it out, checked each other into the boards and worked the puck down the ice to the goal. Wood claims victory while Avellone calls foul, but that’s another story.
"Ice hockey is my passion,” says Wood. “To have the opportunity to get back on the ice … and with all these veterans … it’s been life changing and I’ll definitely be here next year.”
The Marines may not be able to handle the puck that well on the ice, but their traditional Marine Corps after-hours gathering was a hit among veterans of all branches. Both young and old, enlisted or officer, generations of Marine veterans gathered to raise a glass in honor of those that made the ultimate sacrifice. They shared stories and some tall tales, they belly-laughed until it hurt and shed a few tears for the painful memories that still haunt them.
This week wasn’t just about an opportunity to ski or play hockey, but about healing emotional wounds that would normally remain hidden in the recesses of their mind. It was about the resolve of the human spirit and the collective power of the men and women of the armed forces.
Let the tradition continue.
For more information on any of the sports clinics, visit The Department of Veterans Affiars online.