Disabled Vets Experience 'Miracles on Mountainside'
By Donna Miles
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 28, 2012 - Ralph Gigliotti of the Veterans Affairs Department's Rocky Mountain Network had warned about 400 disabled veterans gathered here for the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic to expect miracles to unfold in the days ahead.
Midway through the clinic, even some of the skeptics say they're experiencing firsthand why the popular event, now in its 26th year, has come to be known as "Miracles on a Mountainside."
Anthony Jeffries admits he resisted coming to his first clinic this year. A Marine Corps veteran rendered a quadriplegic during a 2007 car accident, he said the staff at his VA treatment facility in California "practically beat me with a stick" to get him to participate. "It was the fear of the unknown," he said.
But on the clinic's opening day, Jeffries accomplished something he never dreamed possible, skiing down Snowmass Mountain on adaptive skis. "I don't smile much, but I was smiling a lot then," he said. For Jeffries, the run down the mountain was the springboard to a whole new world of opportunity. Now he's looking forward to the clinic's trapshooting event, which he hopes will be a foray to his longtime love of hunting.
Jeffries' mother, Nancy Barrington, said she's seeing the change in her son since arriving here. "He's starting to open up," she said. "He's seeing that there are still things he can do."
Jeffries agrees. "I figure that if I can ski down a mountain, I can probably do a lot of other things that I thought I would never be able to," he said.
That, Gigliotti said, is exactly what the winter sports clinic is designed to help veterans realize.
Alan Burger, a 50-year-old Navy veteran who lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident 30 years ago, experienced his own personal miracle during a clinic-sponsored outing at the T Lazy 7 Ranch in nearby Aspen Highlands. He took the controls of a hulking snowmobile and navigated through the snow-covered trails -- the first time he's driven a vehicle in three decades since his life-altering accident.
"It was awesome!" he exclaimed before climbing back into his wheelchair. "I wanted to go faster!" The freedom was so liberating, he said, that he now plans to apply for his driver's license as soon as he gets home to Kansas City, Kan.
Burger called the experiences at the winter sports clinic "an epiphany for me," and another major step in his road to physical and emotional recovery.
Always in constant pain due to his injury, he had found himself spiraling into substance abuse. But on May 31, he'll celebrate a year of sobriety, and swears, "I'm never going back." Instead, he said he's been focusing on getting himself in shape, putting in three to five miles a day in his wheelchair as part of his exercise and nutrition regimen.
Berger said the clinic has opened his eyes to even greater possibilities. Gone, he said, are the days when he felt he had no choice but to sit on the sidelines watching others enjoy life. "This had made me realize that I can do anything I want to do," he said. "I don't have to be a spectator anymore. I can get out there and live life."
Jon Engles had plenty of spectators cheering him yesterday on as he experienced his own miracle at the winter sports clinic. A former Navy petty officer 3rd class who lost his right leg and most of his right arm in a 2000 motorcycle accident, Engles struggled up a 24-foot rock-climbing wall positioned in the middle of Snowmass Village.
Clinic participants gathered to encourage him as he labored inch by inch up the wall, finally exploding into cheers when he reached the top and rang the bell to announce his accomplishment.
Among those celebrating was Tricia Strombom, Engles' coach from the VA Center in Portland, Ore. "This is huge," she said, an extension of a transformation in Engles she said began on the ski slope the previous day.
"I looked at his eyes, and you could just see the switch flip," she said. "You could see that moment of 'Wow, I can do this. And if I can do this, what else can I do?'"
As he reveled in his achievements, Engles said, it's the support and camaraderie he's found in his fellow disabled veterans that makes them possible.
"I love being with all the veterans," he said. "There's no pretense. It's everyone together, encouraging each other and just about having a good time."
What draws them together, he said, is a common understanding of what each other is experiencing and a common base. "We all served, and come from the same blood," he said.
Jose Lopez called the supportive atmosphere these veterans provide each other a key to his rehabilitation. An Army veteran who was working as a Defense Department civilian sports specialist in Germany when a 2007 motorcycle accident landed him in a wheelchair, Lopez said he initially feared he was destined for a nursing home.
One of his therapists introduced Lopez to adaptive sports a year later, and he quickly began taking advantage of every opportunity offered to him. "It changed my life so much," he said. "I do more things now in a wheelchair than when I was walking."
Thinking about how far he has come, and watching other disabled veterans move forward in their rehabilitation, Lopez said he understands what makes the winter sports clinic the "Miracle on a Mountainside."
"It's everyone together, creating that atmosphere of support," he said. "That's the miracle."
Department of Veterans Affairs
Jon Engles, who lost his right leg and most of his right arm in a 2000 motorcycle accident, shows his determined spirit as he struggles up a rock wall during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. VA photo by Jose Llamas